Cornell scientists have made a significant breakthrough in the quest for greener and more sustainable methods to extract rare earth elements, crucial components in electric cars, wind turbines, and smartphones. They’ve characterized the genome of Shewanella oneidensis, a bacterium with an affinity for rare earth elements, paving the way for a more eco-friendly approach known as biosorption.
Senior author Buz Barstow explained that current methods rely on harsh chemicals and organic solvents, which are both costly and environmentally harmful. Shewanella oneidensis, however, selectively clings to rare earth elements, offering a green alternative to chemical processing.
This bacterium naturally favors europium, one of the lanthanides in the periodic table’s sixth row. By studying its genome, researchers identified 242 genes that influence its rare earth element preferences. Mutant genes found in the bacteria can significantly shorten the purification process, making it more efficient.
This research has the potential to revolutionize rare earth element processing, making it cleaner and more scalable. Currently, all purification is done abroad due to environmental regulations and high infrastructure costs. The new method could eliminate the need for harmful solvents and reduce land and capital-intensive processing, making it more viable in the U.S.
While the technology is still in development, it could help establish a stable U.S. supply of rare earth elements for various applications, including technology and defense. The researchers aim to create a pilot-scale purification system by 2028, offering a genetic blueprint for a more sustainable future in clean energy and technology.
Source: Cornell University