Valuable, rare, raw earth materials extracted from industrial waste stream

December 15, 2009

Fierce competition over raw materials for new green technologies could become a thing of the past, thanks to a discovery by scientists from the University of Leeds.

Researchers from Leeds' Faculty of Engineering have discovered how to recover significant quantities of rare-earth oxides, present in titanium dioxide minerals. The rare-earth oxides, which are indispensable for the manufacture of wind turbines, energy-efficient lighting, and hybrid and , are extracted or reclaimed simply and cheaply from the waste materials of another industrial process.

If taken to industrial scale, the new process could eventually shift the balance of power in global supply, breaking China's near monopoly on these scarce but crucial resources. China currently holds 95 per cent of the world's reserves of rare earth metals in a multi-billion dollar in which demand is growing steadily.

"These materials are also widely used in the engines of cars and electronics, defence and nuclear industries. In fact they cut across so many leading edge technologies, the additional demand for device related applications is set to outstrip supply," said Professor Animesh Jha, who led the research at Leeds.

"There is a serious risk that technologies that can make a major could be held back through lack of the necessary raw materials - but hopefully our new process, which is itself much 'greener' than current techniques, could make this less likely."

Despite their name, the fifteen rare earth metals occur more commonly within the Earth's crust than precious metals such as gold and platinum, but their oxides are rarely found in sufficient concentrations to allow for commercial mining and purification. They are, however, found relatively frequently alongside titanium dioxide - a versatile mineral used in everything from cosmetics and medicines to electronics and the aerospace industries, which Professor Jha has been researching for the last eight years.

The Leeds breakthrough came as Professor Jha and his team were fine-tuning a patented industrial process they have developed to extract higher yields of titanium dioxide and refine it to over 99 per cent purity. Not only does the technology eliminate hazardous wastes, cut costs and carbon dioxide emissions, the team also discovered they can extract significant quantities of rare earth metal oxides as co-products of the refining process.

"Our recovery rate varies between 60 and 80 per cent, although through better process engineering we will be able to recover more in the future," says Professor Jha. "But already, the recovery of oxides of neodymium (Nd), cerium (Ce) and lanthanum (La), from the waste products - which are most commonly found with minerals - is an impressive environmental double benefit."

Explore further: Greener extraction of one of nature's whitest minerals

Related Stories

Greener extraction of one of nature's whitest minerals

February 11, 2008

From medicine to make-up, plastics to paper - hardly a day goes by when we don't use titanium dioxide. Now researchers at the University of Leeds have developed a simpler, cheaper and greener method of extracting higher yields ...

Russian Titanium

July 29, 2005

The situation regarding titanium is paradoxical. On the one hand, titanium is found in abundance in the natural environment: in terms of natural occurrence in the earth's crust, the element is the third among all metals, ...

World's first MOSFETs with epitaxial Gd2O3

February 3, 2006

Researchers at AMICA and Technical University of Darmstadt have successfully fabricated the world's first MOSFETs on ultra-thin-body silicon-on-insulator (SOI) material and bulk silicon with a crystalline gadolinium oxide ...

China tries to calm unease over rare earths curbs

September 3, 2009

(AP) -- A Chinese official tried to calm unease about curbs on exports of rare earths used in clean energy products and superconductors, saying Thursday that sales will continue but must be limited to reduce damage to China's ...

Recommended for you

Scientists: World likely won't avoid dangerous warming mark

September 29, 2016

A team of top scientists is telling world leaders to stop congratulating themselves on the Paris agreement to fight climate change because if more isn't done, global temperatures will likely hit dangerous warming levels in ...

Marine snow fuels life on the sea-floor

September 29, 2016

City-sized maps of terrain and life on the sea-floor have revealed that drifts of 'marine snow' on submarine hillsides act as a source of food to fuel a higher biomass of marine life on the hills than on the flatter plains ...

Ancient global cooling gave rise to modern ecosystems

September 27, 2016

Around 7 million years ago, landscapes and ecosystems across the world began changing dramatically. Subtropical regions dried out and the Sahara Desert formed in Africa. Rain forests receded and were replaced by the vast ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Dec 15, 2009
I am sure it is the fact that I can't read, but I feel like there is nothing of substance to this article.

How are they recovering the minerals differently then how we do now? Which rare earth metals are you talking about? What are the properties of these unnamed rare metals that they are necessary for advanced technology alloys? Why can you not use regular metals, infuse oxygen, and create FeO2 or whichever metal dioxide derivative you need?
5 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
How are they recovering the minerals...

The technologies development and patent status may have something to do with them not even hinting at it... i.e. they can make a lot of $$$ off of keeping it underwraps so someone doesn't do what they're trying to do, before them.
Which rare earth metals are you talking about?

I think the very last sentence mentions some of them at least: "the recovery of oxides of neodymium (Nd), cerium (Ce) and lanthanum (La)"
What are the properties...

Neodymium has magnetic properties, cerium oxide is a highly effective polish and LaO is used in developing ferromagnets and in optics - the preceding info derived from a quick google of each element...
Why can you not use regular metals...

The point here is conservation. Reuse.

Turning what was waste into useable raw material again. In other words, practical technology which has significant environmental impact, as I'm guessing you don't want these things in your drinking water...
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
Thank you defunctdiety. I am beyond grateful for the information from you gave. And, for some reason, didn't see the 3 listed at the end till you pointed it out. I wonder what the other 12 are?
3 / 5 (2) Dec 15, 2009
You can safely add Gallium, Germanium, Thorium to list as well. Or goog 'em. They all have specific chemical/electrical/magnetic density properties that make them ideal for hi-tek applications. I agree with defuntdeity that it is past time that this process for recovering them in this manner was developed. As it says(in not so many words)in the article, the elements are quite abundant in the crust of the earth, but they "rare"ly occur concentrated in large deposits(as oxides) that are easy(and hence, cheaply) mineable. Most of those deposits are currently known to exist in China- which is wasting no time in making bank upon them. You can therefore see how important it is for the rest of the world economy to have an alternative supply of these strategic elements- otherwise China dictates when, how much, and at what price they are available to the rest of the world's industries.
Enough said.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
Oh, Germanium I heard of that one.

Yes, monopolies never end well for anyone else.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.