As the United States and other nations work to restore domestic rare earth elements supply chains, companies, like Allonnia, are exploring new ways to incorporate recycling and waste reclamation as environmentally conscious solutions.
Mining markets are being reshaped in response to economic forces, like electrification and decarbonization, along with the growing significance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals for stakeholders and the public. Significant pressure is being exerted on the mining industry to expand and enhance operations, while declining ore grades and depleted resources are constraining production growth. This pressure is perhaps most acutely present for the rare earth elements (REE), which include the lanthanide metals, such as lanthanum, cerium, and neodymium, as well as other REE, such as yttrium and scandium. REE are essential to many critical electronic components, including sensors, batteries, and magnets that are used for computing and renewable energy production and distribution.
REE are essential to many critical electronic components, including sensors, batteries, and magnets that are used for computing and renewable energy production and distribution.”
Counterintuitively, REE are not particularly rare; in fact, they are found in low abundance in many ore deposits across the world. The greatest challenge with producing high-grade REE for industrial use is separating the elements from each other due to their intrinsic chemical and physical similarity. Purification of REE requires a much greater degree of processing – that is, it requires more time and energy and is more chemically intensive – than is necessary for the elemental separation of other metals. China’s willingness to accept the high environmental costs of producing REE has resulted in its overwhelming dominance of the current global supply. The United States (US) and other nations have now recognized that the supply chains for numerous vital products are strategically at risk and are pushing to restore domestic REE supply chains.
Expansion of the domestic production of REE is being advanced through heavy investment by the US Department of Energy (US DOE) and the Department of Defense (US DOD). US DOE is set to provide up to $2.9 billion in funding to expand domestic production and create supply chain resiliency for advanced batteries and energy storage as part of President Biden’s Executive Order 14017 (Biden Jr., 2021). Historically, the path forward would have focused heavily on renewed exploration to identify virgin resources, which takes decades to develop. Today, both the US government and mining industry recognize that meeting domestic supply goals without sacrificing their ESG commitments will require new technologies to be invented and deployed across the entire supply chain. For example, US DOD’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) has solicited projects to evaluate REE recovery, recycling, and reuse within US DOD’s weapon systems and platforms (in response to Executive Order 13817) (Trump, 2017). In addition, multiple mining companies are sponsoring REE-focused projects as part of their innovation collaborations with academic researchers, as well as private companies.
[B]oth the US government and mining industry recognize that meeting domestic supply goals without sacrificing their ESG commitments will require new technologies to be invented and deployed across the entire supply chain.”
Current REE-enriched waste streams are a clear starting point for building domestic capacity in the near term and will avoid much of the high environmental production costs of virgin materials. For example, manufacturing process streams and recycling at the end of the product life cycle provide enriched waste streams where targeted REE recovery allows for increased efficiency in purification. In addition, significant REE waste streams exist in storage facilities of formerly processed materials, such as coal ash, and in mining tailing and slag impoundments found across the country.
At Allonnia, we are leveraging funding from SERDP and from a major mining company to harness the element-level selectivity afforded by microbial processes to reinvent the REE purification process. Instead of attempting to exploit the minimal chemical and physical differences of the individual REE to purify them, we are partnering with Ginkgo Bioworks to identify specific microbial proteins with binding selectivity for REE (generally and within the REE group) over more abundant metals present in these waste streams. Our transformative strategy capitalizes on the vital and highly specialized biological processes that govern the acquisition, transport, sequestration, and elimination of metals. To date, we have screened over 1,400 proteins and documented their affinities and selectivity for different elements. In addition, the library of REE-binding proteins we are generating can be used to develop novel proteins with targeted functionality; our technology advancement does not stop at the laboratory bench. In concert with the library, we are developing deployment systems that will allow these novel biological solutions to create environmentally responsible technologies at scale for operating mining and manufacturing sites.
Proteins have the potential to selectively extract REE from a variety of waste streams without the high economic costs and detrimental environmental impacts associated with conventional technologies. Allonnia envisions these early efforts as part of “Bioremediation 3.0,” which will utilize transformative biology to unlock new solutions in mining and waste reclamation (Sorenson, 2021). While the long-term domestic supply of REE cannot be provided by recycling and waste reclamation alone, efforts to create a circular economy will provide much-needed resilience.
Karrie Radloff, Ph.D., is the Metals and Mining Engineer at Allonnia, a biotech startup in Boston. She leverages her experience in metals contamination from mining and ore processing operations to improve mining sustainability by developing and deploying novel biogeochemical pathways. Dr. Radloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Biden, JR Jr. [US President]. “Executive Order 14017 of March 1, 2021: America’s Supply Chains.” Fed. Reg. 86(38):11849-11854. Accessed at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/03/01/2021-04280/americas-supply-chains.
Sorenson, K. 2021. “Bioremediation 3.0: The new frontier in environmental biotechnology.” SIMB News. 71(4):128-136. Accessed at https://www.simbhq.org/docs/simbnews/OctDec2021_SIMBNEWS.pdf.
Trump, D. [US President]. “Executive Order 13817 of December 26, 2017: A Federal Strategy To Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals.” Fed. Reg. 82(246):60835-60837. Accessed at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/12/26/2017-27899/a-federal-strategy-to-ensure-secure-and-reliable-supplies-of-critical-minerals.