Researchers from Trinity College Dublin have shed new light on the formation of increasingly valuable rare earth elements (REEs) by creating artificial rocks and testing their responses to different environmental conditions. Rare earth elements are used in electronic devices and green energy technologies, from smartphones to electronic cars.
Results just published in the journal global challenges, It has implications for recycling rare earth elements from e-waste, designing materials with advanced functional properties, and even in finding new chemical deposits hidden around the world.
Dr. Juan Diego Rodriguez Blanco, associate professor of nanoscale mineralogy at Trinity and iCRAG-funded investigator (SFI Research Center in Applied Geosciences), was the principal investigator on the work. He said:
“As the world population grows and carbon emissions are combated in the wake of global climate change, the demand for rare earth elements is increasing at the same time, which is why this research is important. By increasing our understanding of the formation of rare earth elements, we hope to pave the way to a more sustainable future. .
“The genesis of rare earth deposits is one of the most complex problems in Earth sciences, but our approach highlights the mechanisms by which rocks containing rare earths are formed. This knowledge is essential to the energy transition, as rare earths are key to component manufacturing in a renewable energy economy.” .
Many countries are currently searching for more rare earth element deposits with minable concentrations, but extraction processes are often difficult, and separation methods are expensive and environmentally stringent.
One of the main sources of rare earth entities is the carbonate deposits of the rare earth elements. The largest known deposit is Bayan-Obo in China, which provides more than 60% of the needs of global economic entities.
What did the researchers discover?
Their study revealed that liquids containing rare earth elements are displacing common limestone – and this happens through complex reactions even at ambient temperatures. Some of these reactions are very fast, and they happen in the same time it takes to brew a cup of coffee.
This knowledge allows the team to better understand the basic mineral interactions that are also involved in industrial separations, which will help improve extraction methods and separate REEs from liquids.
The team’s research aims to understand the complex processes of formation of rare earth carbonate deposits. But instead of studying natural samples, they make their own minerals and rare earth carbonate rocks (similar to by the way, The main mineral from which rare earth elements can be extracted from carbonate rocks). Then they imitate natural reactions to see how the mineralization of rare earth elements formed.
This also allows them to assess how changes in key environmental factors enhance their formation. This can help us understand the origin of mineralization in untapped carbonate resources, which are found not only in China but also in other regions of the world, such as Brazil, Australia, USA, India, Vietnam, South Africa and Greenland.
Adriann Maria Szucs, a doctoral candidate in geochemistry at Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, and lead author of this study explains.
This research was funded by Science Foundation Ireland, the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency of the SFI Frontiers for the Future programme. Adriann was also supported by a Provost PhD award at Trinity.
A copy of the paper is available upon request.