Could biomining turn electronics green?
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Rare earth elements might not be top of the agenda for businesses, but many IT devices that companies rely on would either be useless or substantially inferior without them. And while more abundant than their name suggests, mineable concentrations of rare earth elements are limited. Your cellphone features a gram or so of rare earths – a collection of 17 metallic elements – which provide special properties to the electronics inside. Their magnetic behavior has helped to develop more efficient motors for EVs and improve the generating efficiency of wind turbines. These are just a few of many applications that make the energy-intensive mining process worthwhile for the tech industry, but there’s a big environmental cost to be paid. And that’s one of the reasons why efforts to use biomining to turn electronics green are attracting interest.
There’s seemingly no limit to the power of plants. On TechHQ, we’ve already reported on how coffee, mushrooms and pineapples could give rise to a new class of biodegradable device materials. And there are digital communication lessons to be learned from the internet of tomatoes. Adding to that list, is the prospect of using biomining to refine rare earth elements without the need for harsh chemicals – the topic of today’s discussion.
Starting with bacteria that already show a preference for selectively binding themselves to rare earth elements, researchers in the US have engineered strains capable of biosorbing up to 210% more than wild versions. “Despite the work that remains to be done, we believe that this work is an encouraging sign that with further throughput, bacteria can be engineered to have sufficient capacity and selectivity to replace solvent extraction as the method of choice for producing purified rare earth elements,” writes the Cornell University team in the journal Synthetic Biology.
Turning sim cards into gold
Solvent extraction, while effective, has the disadvantage of often requiring high-temperatures and harsh chemicals, both of which carry an environmental penalty. Biomining, on the other hand, can make use of nature’s talent for separating materials, which includes not just those in mined ore. Materials inside unwanted electronic components are becoming valuable too – for example, by putting already refined rare earth elements back in circulation.
Mint Innovation, based in New Zealand, describes itself as ‘the world’s first company to use natural biomass and smart chemistry to extract green metals from waste commercially, accelerating circular supply’. And the firm is one of a growing number of organizations tapping into the wealth of precious metals that can – with the right process know-how – be harvested from waste electronics.
The politics of rare earth elements
There’s a political angle to pursuing biomining prospects. China has emerged as the global leader in traditionally refined rare earth elements, which hold strategic importance. Many components featuring rare earth elements – for example, devices used in healthcare, transportation, and power generation – are of high importance to national economies. “Because of this critical role, interest and research into the recovery of rare earth elements from end-of-life products and secondary sources such as coal and coal by-products has recently increased,” comments the US Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management.
Canada, home to 15.1 million tonnes of Rare Earth Elements (REE) in 2022, holds the key to the future of electronics, clean energy, aerospace, automotive, and defense technologies.
Permanent magnets, crucial for wind turbines and electric vehicles, are driving global REE demand.… pic.twitter.com/UgdJ8W3Agz
— Troy Minerals (@troy_minerals) January 25, 2024
The US has reserves of rare earth elements estimated to be in the region of 2.3 million tons. However, China reportedly has more than 20 times this figure, and sits on a wealth of resources. Biomining technologies could help to not just reduce the burden that the refining of rare earth elements places on the environment; they may also ease global tensions.
Being able to access materials present in waste electronics reduces the dependence on imports, which may be limited and subject to tariffs. Ideally, stakeholders would put the planet first. But if national security pulls the lever on helping to turn electronics and other critical components green, then sobeit.
28 February 2024
28 February 2024
27 February 2024