A potential game changer! This could take away China’s monopoly on the rare earth industry and make electric vehicles a little more environmentally friendly. If it ever comes to fruition, that is…
A waste product of the fertilizer industry might serve as a rich repository of rare earth elements. Researchers have devised a natural way to get these resources from phosphate rock waste. Their bacteria-based extraction method caused much less harm to the environment than current techniques that relied on synthetic acids.
The discovery came from the Critical Materials Institute (CMI). A research group of the Department of Energy, the CMI sought to strengthen local sources of resources critical to clean energy technology.
Rare earth elements are heavily used in solar panels and other technologies associated with clean energy. The CMI researchers believed that phosphate rock waste offered an alternative source of these important materials.
Most modern devices rely on rare earth elements to reach their size, weight, and performance. Dysprosium, neodymium, and other rare earths make it possible to manufacture efficient photovoltaic arrays, advanced wind turbines, electric vehicles, and mobile devices like smartphones.
However, the United States produces very little in the way of rare earth elements. Most of the world’s supply comes from China, giving that country the ability to affect the energy security of the U.S. and other countries. (Related: China’s rare earth minerals export ban will collapse the telecom industry and all “green” power, including solar and wind turbines.)
Phosphate rock waste contains plenty of rare earth elements
Rare earth elements are also present in phosphogypsum. The phosphate rock is one of the byproducts of the industrial process that makes phosphoric acid, a vital ingredient in synthetic fertilizers.