Commercializing UA SRC Research on Extraction of Rare Earth Elements

Jan. 18, 2024

Research supported by the University of Arizona Superfund Research Center (UA SRC) has begun the process of commercialization. This commercialization is set in the skyrocketing demand and precarious global supply for strategic metals such as the rare earth elements (REE) driven by high-tech industry needs.

REE are used to manufacture products including those that fight climate change and create a more sustainable environment. One way to help meet demand is to “mine” REE from anthropogenic and natural water and brines from mining, oil and gas recovery, seawater desalination, and geothermal aquifers.

Early research supported by the UA SRC demonstrated the ability of bacterial surfactants (biosurfactants) to extract metals from water. Subsequently it was found that these biosurfactants are selective for rare earth elements over common soil and water cations. Further, these surfactants can now be synthesized using a patented green chemistry process which means they can be further tuned for metal selectivity and for specific recovery applications (McCawley et al., 2023; Research Brief 340).

NIEHS support for this research has continued in the form of small business innovation research grants (Phase 1 and 2) and the effort has culminated in the award of a Rio Tinto Water Remediation Challenge grant to begin the process of commercializing bioinspired surfactants for the valorization of mining-influenced waters including determining the economic feasibility.

This process has taken 30 years and demonstrates both the importance of long-term funding of the kind that is offered by the NIEHS Superfund Research Program, and how it can be difficult to imagine the potential future applications of the research supported by this Program.

To learn more:

Research Brief 340: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program. Mimicking molecules made by bacteria to remove metals from water. Released 4/5/2023.

McCawley, I.A., R.M. Maier, D.E. Hogan. 2023. Comparison of synthetic rhamnolipids as chemical precipitants for Pb, La, and Mg. J. Haz. Mat. doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2023.130801

Related Cores