The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced a program to extract Rare Earth Elements (RRE) from domestic sources using microbes, a process called ‘biomining.’
Success in the program will end American dependence upon China which is its single largest supplier of RREs.
The DARPA program called Environmental Microbes as a BioEngineering Resource (EMBER) aims to leverage advances in microbial and biomolecular engineering to develop a bio-based separation and purification strategy for REEs using under-developed domestic sources, a DARPA release said.
REEs are a group of 17 similar metals that are critical material components of many defense system including lasers, precision-guided weapons, magnets for motors, and other devices. Although the U.S. has adequate domestic REE resources, its supply chain is vulnerable due to dependence on foreign entities for separation and purification of these elements.
China, which is the world’s largest supplier of RREs has often threatened to cut off its supply to U.S. defense companies in response to American sanctions against Chinese entities.
“The EMBER program will aim to fill a critical DoD supply chain gap” stated Dr. Linda Chrisey, EMBER program manager. “The program will target the development of bioengineered organisms/biomolecular approaches for REE purification, then translate these to practical biomining modules (e.g., biosorbent, biofiltration) that can be integrated with domestic REE sources.”
The four-year program will address two Technical Areas (TAs) and be divided into three phases. The goal of TA1, “Bioengineering for REE Utilization,” is to establish a platform for engineering organisms and/or biomolecules to enable the binding of REEs under harsh conditions. TA2, “REE Biomining” will focus on developing and testing a biomining workflow to purify individual REEs from actual source materials.
During Phase 1, efforts will focus on developing microorganisms and biomolecules suitable for use in REE separation – a challenging task due to the chemical similarity between REEs. In Phase 2, performers will work on improving the efficiency and scale of REE separation from actual source materials. Phase 3 will culminate in pilot-scale REE biomining demonstration.
“EMBER aims to deliver multiple capabilities, such as the separation of REE mixtures into individual elements; inter-conversion of REE salts/oxides to facilitate production of manufacturing-ready forms; and new assays for high-throughput analysis of REE-containing cells and biomolecules,” added Chrisey.