Rare earth breakthrough will create greater sustainability

As the global hunt for so called “rare earth” minerals intensifies US scientists believe they are on the cusp of delivering a more sustainable way to chemically transform them to be used in renewable energy applications.

The team at private research facility, Case Western, are working on the scheme which will enable them to process a mineral called neodymium, in particular. Neodymium is expensive, priced at more than $60,000 per metric ton.

If successful, the new process could one day help increase American production of the metals, which are now primarily imported from China. Rare earth metals are crucial for making not only wind turbines and electric cars, but also items like smartphones, computer screens and telescopic lenses.

With $1.7 million in support from the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Critical Materials Institute, Rohan Akolkar, the Milton and Tamar Maltz professor of energy innovation, at Case is developing a high-temperature electrochemical process to convert these minerals into highly sought-after metals for clean-energy applications.

“Because neodymium is important in clean-energy applications, electronic devices and electric cars, it is in great demand,” said Akolkar, who is also the Ohio eminent scholar in Advance Energy Research at the Case School of Engineering. “We believe that our unique approach to converting domestic neodymium ores into metal will be cheaper, cleaner and far more sustainable than any existing technique.”

Akolkar’s research is being conducted amid a global competition to produce greater amounts of rare-earth metals.

And despite being called “rare,” they are actually fairly common in nature, but are less easily extracted because they aren’t found concentrated in large deposits. Instead, they are dispersed in smaller concentrations and are harder to mine.

Nearly all of the critical rare-earth metals are imported by the United States, according to the US Geological Survey, creating a renewed push to produce them domestically.

In February 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that authorised the defence department to investigate US reliance on foreign imports and a lack of domestic processing of critical minerals—including neodymium.

Akolkar and his team plan to use high-temperature molten salts as the medium in which neodymium metal can be processed. They plan to use a method known as electrowinning, a way of producing a metal by electrochemically reducing its oxide.

Molten salts are highly conductive electrolytes which help lower the electrical energy input to—and cost of—electrowinning, Akolkar said. Further, his proposed process would eliminate carbon dioxide and perfluorocarbon emissions during the electrowinning, making the process cleaner and more sustainable.

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