This article is part of a series covering Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Scroll visited different projects from INL, and this publication covers the INL researchers, who are part of the Critical Materials Innovation (CMI) Hub located at the Ames National Laboratory in Ames, IA.
As demand for electric vehicles and clean energy continues to grow, companies are struggling to maintain the supply of rare minerals that these devices need to function.
Many energy-saving materials come through mining, but researchers at CMI work to reuse elements already available.
“Most houses have a few cell phones sitting in them somewhere,” said David Reed, a researcher at CMI. “We need these metals for our defense systems, we need them for our computers (and) in green energy.”
Phones contain minerals like neodymium, cobalt and gallium, some of the crucial materials that contribute to green technology. But those minerals are mixed with other elements, and getting them separated usually involves expensive technological processes.
Reed sees a better method.
In Reed’s group at INL, they’ve found that certain species of bacteria react to different elements in various ways. In the right environment, bacteria can produce organic acids that dissolve the critical metals away from the other materials.
“Oftentimes we can manipulate (and) improve upon their (bacteria) capabilities to do the same types of reactions that an industrial, chemical or heat process will do,” Reed said. “But we can (often) do it cheaper, and (we’re) less likely to produce waste products that are hazardous.”
One recent breakthrough happened across the country earlier this year. A research team at Pennsylvania State University discovered a particular family of bacteria that produces a protein that can interact with specific rare earth metals in unique ways. This makes it much easier to separate those special metals from common ones, and scientists can reuse those materials for other purposes.
But feeding the bacteria comes with a hefty price. Back in Idaho, Reed’s team uses nutrients from an unlikely — but very Idaho — source: potato wastewater.
Potato processing plants across Idaho use millions of gallons of water to clean and prepare potatoes for all uses, but they have nowhere to put the wastewater. Local governments don’t want them to dump the waste into local waterways because the water is filled with potato remains.
The potato pieces have the nutrients that bacteria need to grow. By feeding bacteria cultures with this wastewater, they can keep the critters alive at reduced cost.
“Sometimes the (potato) companies will even pay (entities) to take the wastewater off their hands,” Reed said. “It’s a win-win.”
Breakthroughs like these are at the core of renewable energy research: reducing waste, embracing the power of bacteria and improving humanity’s relationship with the environment.
The U.S. gets most of its critical minerals from other countries, and there are several reasons why this process can be difficult, according to Reed.
In a report by the U.S. Geological Survey, it states China produces approximately 98% of the world’s gallium, a material used in many everyday appliances. In July, China set restrictions on how much gallium other countries can buy from them, disrupting the U.S. supply system for manufacturing those products.
While mining for rare earth materials can get political, recycling helps stabilize those relationships. It can also have a positive humanitarian impact.
For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 60% of the world’s cobalt, but many of these mines run on child labor and exploitative contracts. Gabriela Morales, a researcher at CMI, said that by using recycled materials, the U.S. can minimize the exploitations that certain mining companies are capable of.
Moving forward, CMI wants to scale its production and work with commercial groups.
Small improvements to the rare earth element extraction process slowly makes the investment more appealing to manufacturing companies. Eventually, CMI’s discoveries will supplement current mining methods in the push for more green technology.