Cornell University scientists have studied a bacteria that has a strong affinity for rare earth elements. These elements are used in the production of electric cars, wind turbines, and smartphones. Currently, these metals are obtained through a process involving acids and solvents. However, the scientists have developed a new technology called biosorption, which uses a microbe to make the process cleaner and more scalable.

The scientists characterized the genome of the microbe known as Shewanella oneidensis, which has a particular preference for rare earth elements, especially europium. By understanding the microbe’s genome, the scientists can modify its preferences to process other rare earth elements.

The current purification methods for rare earth elements rely on harmful chemicals and organic solvents, making them expensive and environmentally damaging. In contrast, biosorption uses microbes to selectively adsorb and purify the elements, eliminating the need for harmful chemicals. This makes the purification process greener and more sustainable.

The researchers hope that their technology will reduce the reliance on overseas purification facilities and allow for a cleaner and more scalable process within the United States. They aim to create a pilot-scale purification system by 2028.

Funding for this research was provided by Cornell Atkinson, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and a gift from Mary Fernando Conrad and Tony Conrad.

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