German firms work on microbiological processes to extract rare earths

25 March 2014 16:46  [Source: ICIS news]

LONDON (ICIS)--Two German firms have joined forces to develop microbiological processes for the extraction of rare earths, Germany’s federal research ministry, which will partly fund the project, said on Tuesday.

The microbiological processes being developed by biotechnology firm Brain and rare earths firm Seltenerden Storkwitz (SES) could open up alternative rare earths sources. The project also underlines the role of industrial biotechnology in Germany. 

The ministry said that Brain and SES identified microorganisms that can extract specific rare earth metals directly from aqueous solutions that are part of conventional mining processes - even if the concentration of the metals is low.

Rare earth metals accumulate rarely in commercially valuable concentrations. The largest deposits are in China, which dominates the sector. Conventional rare earths mining requires chemicals and results in waste products whereas microbiological processes would be environmentally sustainable, the ministry added.

The ministry will partly fund the development of the microbiological processes, which will, if successful, be licensed to third parties.

Brain’s CEO, Holger Zinke, said that the partnership with SES, while unusual at first glance, underlined "the progression of the biologisation of industries and the growing importance of the bioeconomy."

Germany has a rare earth deposit at Storkwitz near Leipzig in Saxony state that was discovered in the 1970s during uranium exploration.

Rare earths are critical for the production of catalysts in the refining and petrochemical industries, and they play a key role in the electronics and many other sectors.

By: Stefan Baumgarten
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