back to article Forget that rare-earth element crunch – we can now just extract them from industrial waste

Bacteria could help scientists mine rare-earth elements, a critical component in modern electronic devices, from the chemical waste produced from the process of manufacturing fertilizers. A team of chemists from the academic and industry laboratories across the US studied how rare-earth elements (REEs) could be mined from …

  1. Pete 47

    Sounds a tad pointless?

    There are any number of widely available and cheap organic acids available industrially so why not simply use one of these. Alternatively, as they showed that Sulphuric (yes that's the "correct" spelling in this old British head!) was superior (and presumably any other readily available mineral acid would be too) - sooo what's the story here? They used spent growth medium, so presumably again this isn't a bacterium that can be grown on on the phospho-gypsum so nowt special about it.

    Is there an industry with an abundance of this stuff as a waste by-product or something?

    1. Black Betty

      Re: Sounds a tad pointless?

      Depends on what you want the acid to do. Good old sulphuric (or any other mineral) acid is pretty indiscriminate when it comes to attacking elements with essentially identical valency. (ie the entire lanthanide series) What this article seems to be saying is that the organic acids produced by these bacteria can reliably discriminate between different members of the series and do it with fewer toxic byproducts than existing refining methods.

    2. thames

      Re: Sounds a tad pointless?

      Heap-leaching works on very large piles of waste rock to recover low concentrations of minerals economically. That is, you just pile up the rock in huge piles on a packed clay or plastic leach pad, spray the leach solution on it, and recover the water draining off the bottom. The recovered water will contain dissolved minerals which you then recover and process further to extract the desired minerals.

      The process is already widely used in the mining industry for copper, gold, and other minerals. The main difficult is that if the leaching agent is an environmental hazard then you have a big problem when (if) it leaks out to somewhere else.

      The process proposed here uses an organic acid which will naturally decay, meaning that leaks are less of a problem, making the mining process less risky.

  2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    WTF?

    "Is there an industry with an abundance of this stuff as a waste by-product or something?"

    Yes there is.

    Had you bothered to read the story, not the headline.

    1. Pete 47

      Re: "Is there an industry with an abundance of this stuff as a waste by-product or something?"

      Please point out where in this story the source of the bacterium/biolixivant is an abundant industrial waste-product.

      Then wind your neck in.

      1. DuncanLarge Bronze badge

        Re: "Is there an industry with an abundance of this stuff as a waste by-product or something?"

        "Please point out where in this story the source of the bacterium/biolixivant is an abundant industrial waste-product."

        Er it need not be a waste product. Why should it be?

        Source of Bacterium = they literally grow on trees.

        Source of biolixiviant (spelling corrected) = Grow some bacteria on sugar.

        Source of sugar = It grows in large quantities in fields all over the world. Seen today as generally hazardous to human health due to over consumption, surplus supplies are increasing due to decreasing demand.

        Whats the problem? Oh there isnt everything ready built to produce this stuff in large quantities ready to go? Last time I checked most entrepreneurs were not clairvoyant so someone will just have to give a rich guy the idea in the dragons den.

        Go home and cash that cheque the chinese gave you.

        1. James O'Shea Silver badge

          Re: "Is there an industry with an abundance of this stuff as a waste by-product or something?"

          It's worse than that. The article specifically states that a lot of the PG waste is in Idaho and Florida. Idaho is fairly close to Colorado (one state over, your choice of Wyoming or Utah), where there are lots and lots and lots of sugar beets, so lots of sugar. Florida has lots and lots and lots of sugar cane, so lots of sugar. Both states will have plentiful other sources of growth media for bacteria, ranging from sawdust to assorted livestock by-products. It might actually be worth the while to ship PG waste in to those states to be, ah, 'processed'. And in Idaho they might try to get at the uranium and thorium as well and ship it to Utah or Oregon for use in reprocessing into certain products of a national security nature.

  3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Excllent work

    Actual science

    Improving the security of supply for any strategic material in any country (which does not involve invading someone else) is a good idea.

    Although as has been pointed out on these pages before they are not actually that rare.

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Excllent work

      Although as has been pointed out on these pages before they are not actually that rare.

      Indeed. When I read this:

      REEs, as the name suggests, are difficult to find and mine

      I thought, "Expect a visit tonight from the grim spectre of Tim Worstall, Katyanna". (Not that I knew anything about the subject before reading ol ' Wooly's articles, or that I've tried to independently verify anything he wrote.)

      Of course, that doesn't mean this new approach is pointless. It's all about the economics, as Tim himself never failed to point out. China dominates the supply because they're willing to do it cheaply. That won't last forever, and if this process can be industrialized at a low enough cost, it will be useful.

  4. cookieMonster
    Joke

    So that's why my iPad is getting slower

    "The bacteria dwells in environments rich in sugar and can be naturally found in apples and pears, where they cause the fruit to rot."

    And not because I'm holding it wrong :-)

    1. Crypto Monad

      Re: So that's why my iPad is getting slower

      My first reaction was this doesn't affect single-storey buildings

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: So that's why my iPad is getting slower

        "My first reaction was this doesn't affect single-storey buildings"

        Bugger! I should have scrolled down and realised I'd already been gazumped!

      2. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: So that's why my iPad is getting slower

        But after extracting lanthanides from this mildly radioactive spoil heap you will definitely need to lemon your margates and possibly your plates before your trouble will let you in the house.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: So that's why my iPad is getting slower

      And considering the shite that most people end up storing in that little dark cupboard under the apple and pears, there might well be a mining opportunity there.

  5. Inventor of the Marmite Laser Silver badge

    PG waste from chemical plants producing phosphoric acid.

    So, things do truly go better with Coke

  6. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    1. AdamT

      Re: Hmm fails the Tim Worstall Test.

      something like: "Excuse me while I do the embarrassing middle-aged man 'I Told You so' victory dance" ?

      I'm pretty sure he used that phrase at his El Reg Lecture but no-one knows if he actually did it because we reflexively all closed our eyes just in case...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Hmm fails the Tim Worstall Test.

        Tim Worstall had some sensible things to say on this subject. I did a search and came up with these two from 2010:

        "China's doomed attempt to hold the world to ransom; Rare Earths - Actually, they're not that rare"

        <https://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/01/15/rare_earth_metals/>

        "Don't let China hold rare-earths to ransom again; There's plenty to go around if we're clever"

        <https://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/08/rare_metals_china/>

        Once upon a time in the early 1990s, I recall a report that the factory which made roughly 80% of the global supply of plastic IC packaging material had been destroyed by fire. I also recall reading of many operations panic buying the stuff, and some speculators buying as much as they could in the hope of making a killing later on when the price went sky-high.

        I never did find out exactly how supply was maintained, but it turned out that the speculators didn't do at all well and the panic-buyers ended up looking sheepish because - well, somehow, despite the total destruction of 80% of global production capacity, "the market" dealt with it. When there's big money to be made from supplying something, that something will end up being supplied if at all possible.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hmm fails the Tim Worstall Test.

      You can still read his thoughts on his website The Continental Telegraph. Although TBH the content doesn't seem as well argued or convincing as the more in-depth and thought-provoking analysis he used to present here.

      1. Tim Worstal

        Re: Hmm fails the Tim Worstall Test.

        "TBH the content doesn't seem as well argued or convincing as the more in-depth and thought-provoking analysis he used to present here."

        Entirely true, here I was well paid - for which thanks - to do so. There, not so much as yet. Thus volume and rather less in any particular piece.

        As to this basic idea. Yes, lots of REs in that waste. I've talked, as part of other work, to a few people looking at it. It's entirely and absolutely possible to extract. Would be a reasonable place to get my beloved scandium. Heap leaching would be a good way. A new and different acid? Sure, might be better, might not be. It's the price of doing it that matters.

        One thing, no, they're not saying that this new method is selective. Rather, they started with artificial simulacrums of the real material, each sample doped with an individual RE. Which was then extracted. Using this method on the real stuff would give you a concentrate of all the REs. You can peel off the Sc and Y easily by chemical means. But all the rest have to go through one of those girt big RE plants which cost a $ billion each, minimum.

        There's also significant U and Th contamination, as noted above. Which doesn't worry so much, it's the daughter products of their breakdown which do. Radium is not nice stuff and it is indeed in there as a result. Yes, really, I've talked to such people.

        The real and actual trick of RE extraction would be to find a new method of doing that separation of the lanthanides. If you could do it on a smaller scale (weird but true) in smaller batches then you could take wastes from a wide variety of industrial processes. Stuff that already exists and is just thrown away today. The problem being that if you need a billion $ plant to do it then you want an input stream that is large enough, homogenous enough, to feed into a billion $ plant. If you've smaller processing plant (s) then you can use smaller batches, more heterogenous ones, as your inputs.

        There is a candidate technology to do this but no one really wants to spend $50 million to try it out.

        1. umacf24

          Re: Hmm fails the Tim Worstall Test.

          I actually went through this looking for the Worstall view.

          Thank you.

  7. lee harvey osmond

    mildly radioactive?

    "Also, it’s mildly radioactive since it contains low deposits of uranium and thorium."

    Hmmm. In principle then we could also be using bioleaching to separate out uranium and thorium?

    I'm scratching my head. The bacteria produce gluconic acid, is that the whole business of making them available to chemical separation, or is there a biological component too?

    Chemical reactions conducted by biology tend to be different to those conducted by geology or chemists. Enzymes tend to be very efficient catalysts. Biological reactions tend to proceed via a much larger number of transition (intermediate) states than abiological ones, and this sometimes shows up in the isotopic distributions of elements in reaction products -- reactions with lighter isotopes go faster.

    Could we then use biotechnology both for refining uranium ore, and isotope separation? Enrichment? That'd be good for a laugh.

    [Yes I reread the article, no biotechnological step in the chemical separation. But I can dream can't I?]

    1. stiine Bronze badge

      Re: mildly radioactive?

      Yep, in fact, if you're going to try extracting uranium, all you need is seawater, but as you can imagine, you need /a lot/ of it.

      1. James O'Shea Silver badge

        Re: mildly radioactive?

        Florida has lots of access to seawater...

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: mildly radioactive?

      Could we then use biotechnology both for refining uranium ore, and isotope separation? Enrichment? That'd be good for a laugh."

      We probably don't want to be breeding bacteria capable of withstanding hard radiation. It might mutate. The last thing this world needs is trillions of microscopic bacteria with assorted superpowers.

      1. JLV Silver badge

        Re: mildly radioactive?

        what would be really scary is if a bacteria was bitten by a radioactive spider!

      2. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: mildly radioactive?

        We already have our mutant bacterial overlords, such as thiobacter concretivorans.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Boffin

      "Could we then use biotechnology both for refining.., and isotope separation? Enrichment? "

      Element separation <> isotopic enrichment.

      It turns out that (for example) that extracting Pu from spent Gas Cooled Reactor fuel (for nuclear weapons) was much simpler than building enrichment plants to increase the level of U235 above the natural level of 0.7%.

      However...

      It turns out that people's diet can be deduced from the C14/C12 ratio in their body tissues. This is because the chemical pathways in rice and corn are different. If you eat a lot more of one than the other you will develop a characteristic ratio over time.

      So isotopic bio-enrichment is a real thing which can be useful if you want to identify where someone (like a dead body) may have come from.

      Wheather you can find bacteria that have pathways that would accumulate U235 over U238 (or even find bacteria that use, or could be encouraged to switch to Uranium for use in some metabolic pathway or other) is a whole different question

      Spoiler alert.

      This is also a plot device in Jasper Fforde 's novel "The Fourth Bear," where it's use is slightly more plausible.

  8. DropBear Silver badge

    Strange. I was under the distinct impression that "rare"-earths are absolutely anything but rare. It's literally the first thing everyone points out any time they are mentioned anywhere.

  9. HamsterNet

    Rare Earths

    Whilst not Rare in their total amount in the Earths crust. They are not present in veins of high purity anywhere.

    They are present at a low concentration in loads of places. Which makes them expensive to extract and purify.

    Just like there is 9,000 tons of gold in the seawater, its concentration is so low as to make it very hard to get out.

  10. Hairy Spod

    REEs, as the name suggests, are difficult to find and mine

    Are they though?

    I thought the rare part of the name was just a hangover from when they were first discovered and that Chinese can simply produce them so cheaply that they put the rest of the world's mines completely out of business long before they stopped yeilding any mateirals

    1. stiine Bronze badge

      Re: REEs, as the name suggests, are difficult to find and mine

      Search the El Reg Archives, specifically for articles by Tim Worstal (as mentioned above), and for fairness' sake, read articles by those people he mentions who have different ideas.

      To sum it up, its not that they are rare, but that they're ores are rare compared to feldspar or quartz. The problem is that there aren't actually rare-earth mines rather the rare earth elements are slightly-more-major components of the slag you have left after you extract the more abundant minerals.

      1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        Re: REEs, as the name suggests, are difficult to find and mine

        From the article: "I think there's such a vast reserve there," said David Reed. The difference between a reserve and dirt being the economics of extracting something useful from it.

      2. JLV Silver badge

        Re: REEs, as the name suggests, are difficult to find and mine

        This, essentially economic, phenomenon isn’t uncommon. Lithium and titanium, as elements, are also pretty abundant but hard to isolate and/or process into useable feedstock.

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: REEs, as the name suggests, are difficult to find and mine

          Very slight correction. Titanium's pretty easy. Well, OK, but to explain.

          To get to titania, titanium dioxide, is pretty simple. That's why it costs $400 or so a tonne. Take ilmenite (maybe $50 a tonne, thereabouts) and dissolve in sulphuric. Or, alternatively, add coal, chlorine, and light. Nice exothermic reaction - thus self sustaining - and TiCl is a gas at these temperatures, you can distill it out of the other stuff. For the varied gases solidify again at different temperatures, have a long tube that gradually cools and each one will pop out of the little holes along that temperature gradient. Convert back to TiO2 once separated. Used to be one of ICI's big things, plant still exists - or did 5 years ago - up on Teeside somewhere. Hunter Chemicals now maybe?

          OK, a bit more complex but not really. But the point is it's pretty cheap. That's why TiO2 is used for simple and cheap stuff like the white in white paint.

          Converting the TiO2 to Ti metal, no, that's expensive. Last I looked, years back, nice Ti metal was $14 to $20 a kg.

          Units of Ti are easy and cheap to get. Getting them into the form you actually want can be expensive....

          1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
            Pint

            "Getting them into the form you actually want can be expensive...."

            Hmmm.

            Now if you could find a bacteria that ate Titania and excreted pure Titanium......

            In the way that other of man's little helpers excrete alcohol.

          2. Haefen

            Cheap Ti metal

            Cheap Ti metal is on the way, eventually should be about the same price as Aluminium once new production methods are in place and the market is regulated to allow patents to expire. I expect higher profits long before lower prices but thats just my past experience.

  11. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    BBC just published a feature online that I didn't open about "scientists" putting phones and such in kitchen blenders, so presumably that's another way.

  12. Haefen

    Buy ethical, buy Canadian bioleached REE

    The same process described in the article, bioleaching, can be used to extract rare earth metals and elements from other sources. Canada's total reserves of rare earth deposits are among the worlds largest. Canada has neodymium, praseodymium, lithium, zirconium, beryllium, niobium and tantalum and Canadian companies wanting to extract them.

    There are deposits throughout Canada, from Nunvat to Newfoundland, from NWT to Quebec and Ontario. Canada's black shale deposits are another source that would work well with bioleaching to extract REE.

    There is no shortage of sites and Canada produces some of the most ethical resource products available in large quantities.

    But being ethical also means not being as cheap as China.

    When it comes to Canada supplying the world there is another problem. The USA.

    The USA sees Canada as it's own personal reserve of resources with Canadian reserves being listed by the U.S. military.

    This view of Canadian resources is easily seen when it comes to oil. The USA has about 13 billion barrels and is the worlds largest producer. One province in Canada has over 130 Billion of barrels and isn't even a major supplier to world markets. Canada tankers more oil into Canada than it tankers out. Canadian oil shipped by pipeline to the USA is sold at a major discount, sometimes half price.

    A a result the USA is actively involved in restricting resource development in Canada and has it's own supply of resources. Unless Canada manages to break away from domination by the USA it isn't likely Canada will supply the world with REE.

    Pity that because is sounds like the world could use Canada's far more ethically produced resources, we even have waste phosphogypsum thanks to potash mining in Saskatchwan. The same company China wanted to buy, until.....

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Buy ethical, buy Canadian bioleached REE

      "Canada has neodymium, praseodymium, lithium, zirconium, beryllium, niobium and tantalum"

      Was it just me that "heard" that part of the comment in a sing-song "element song" voice?

  13. Alan Brown Silver badge

    There never was a rare earth crunch

    Rare earths are everywhere in our soils and slightly more concentrated in some locations.

    The problem is that one of them is thorium - very slightly radioactve (15 billion year halflife) and another is uranium (only slightly more radioactive at 4-6 billion year halflife), so you can't put them back in the hole in the ground you got them from.

    If some use could be found for them then the rare earth shortage would be addressed overnight. Hmmm. I wonder what possible uses they could have?

    (Hint: LFTR)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    naturally produced by a strand of bacteria

    So do we get a whole range of electronics that vegans won't use? Bacterial rights activists campaigning outside Dixons PC Curry World?

  15. jelabarre59 Silver badge

    Landfill

    I'm just wondering why we aren't just mining discarded electronics for "rare-earth" materials. After all, that's where we put them the last time... And they're potentially all in one place.

    1. Haefen

      Re: Landfill

      Cost is the reason we do not mind landfills. China and other countries with very different environmental and human right laws are a far cheaper source.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Landfill

        "Cost is the reason we do not mind landfills. "

        If there was a market for thorium, the amount in coal ash slurry ponds (thanks to concentration effects of burning off the coal) makes it economic to mine them for the Thorium and pull out a bunch of rare earths as a byproduct.

        That would solve a rather nasty environmental problem and make money in one hit.

        Cost is not the primary obstruction to mining landfills BTW. The primary obstruction is that most of them tend to be built over or close to/inside populated areas.

        1. Tim Worstal

          Re: Landfill

          Slight technical point. The REs don't in fact preferentially concentrate in the fly ash nor clinker. Pity but there it is. The germanium concentrates beautifully in the fly ash which is why we get 50% of the world's supply from that source.

          Ash will have, around and about, whatever concentration was in the original coal minus the carbon. Which isn't quite enough to produce a viable concentration to extract. A number of US schemes testing this out at present and absent some environmental case - say, cleaning up ash ponds - lifting some of the cost it doesn't work.

  16. The Axe

    Tim Worstall

    No comment from Tim?

    1. Jack of Shadows Silver badge

      Re: Tim Worstall

      I checked Continental Telegraph and nothing so far.

    2. Tim Worstal

      Re: Tim Worstall

      See a couple of comments above......

  17. SNAFUology
    Thumb Up

    sounds great

    recycling used resources in the least damaging way now, rather than waiting until we are desperate and run out of natural deposits = great.

  18. Zuagroasta

    This means Nauru gets a second chance?

    How much PG was left there after the island was mined out? That copuld help them get back to some decent income level after the phosphate ran out. I miss the guys racing their motorbikes against airliners taking off..

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