Using Microorganisms to Separate and Purify Rare-Earth Elements

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists and colleagues will separate and purify rare-earth elements (REEs) for use in the military industry using naturally occurring and manufactured proteins and microbes.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has given an initial $4 million in research and development funding in Phase 1, with an option for an additional $9 million dependent on program success in subsequent phases.

The researchers will use developments in microbial and biomolecular engineering to create a scalable bio-based separation and purification technique for REEs from underutilized local sources. REEs are a group of 17 elements in the periodic table, including the 15 lanthanides as well as scandium and yttrium.

To date, the chemical methods necessary to extract and purify REEs have been difficult and environmentally hazardous. Using natural products to extract or recycle REE from new sources, such as low-grade ores and tailings, might be game changer for the REE supply chain.

Because REEs have just recently been recognized to have a function in biological processes, “biomining,” a strategy that employs microorganisms to extract or separate target metals like gold or copper from a range of sources, is not yet suitable for REEs.

The LLNL team will use the diversity, specificity, and customizability of environmental microbiology, synthetic biology, and protein engineering in the new project to allow innovative biomining technologies for the separation, purification, and conversion of REEs into manufacturing-ready forms.

Reference-  Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) Media Release, Clean Technica, Popular Science, Forbes,