Feb 14, 2020

Researchers tackle rare earth extraction

Researchers tackle rare earth extraction Rare-earth oxides (clockwise from top center): praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Credit: Peggy Greb/USDA/Science Source

A $920,000 Queensland project aims to give minerals explorers a ‘toolbox’ of approaches to improve extraction of rare earth elements (REE).

Researchers from UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI), Faculty of Engineering Architecture and IT (EAIT), and School of Environmental and Earth Sciences (SEES) are carrying out the work over four and a half years.

It is part of SMI’s Complex Orebodies strategic program and supported by the Geological Survey of Queensland through its New Economy Minerals Initiative.

SEES Research Fellow Dr Emma Gagen said the project would help ensure future methods used to access REE in Queensland were informed by research.

“The pathways from discovery to mining, extraction and sale are much more poorly understood for REE than they are for more commonly-sought elements like gold or copper,” Dr Gagen said.

“This project aims to provide explorers with a toolbox of REE extraction approaches that will allow them to better understand what they should be looking for in terms of ore grades, mineralogy and other important factors.

“The range of different REE mineral styles in Queensland as they are currently known will be examined in a component led by the SMI’s W.H. Bryan Mining & Geology Research Centre (BRC).

“This knowledge will be used as a basis to consider a range of new extraction approaches, including innovative comminution and separation, hydrometallurgical extraction, geomicrobiological technologies and phytomining.”

UQ School of Chemical Engineering Associate Professor James Vaughan said REEs were present in a wide range of ores and residues, and the challenge was to identify the feed materials that could be most efficiently processed into saleable products.

“This requires both geologists and metallurgical engineers to work together and to be seeking improved approaches,” he said.

The work comes against a backdrop of rising demand for REE, which are common in the manufacture of technology such as electric cars and mobile phones.

The SMI says demand for REE has doubled since 2000 and is set to double again in the next 10 years.

Rare earth elements include cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).


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