Alberta’s Ingenuity Lab and its biomining efforts are being featured in a Feb. 3, 2014 Nanowerk Spotlight article which was supplied by Ingenuity Lab (Note: A link has been removed),
Scientists at Ingenuity Lab in Edmonton, Alberta are taking cues from nature, as they focus on nanotechnology gains in the area of biomining. Using microorganisms and biomolecules, the group is making significant advances in the recovery of rare earth and precious metals from industrial processes and the environment thanks to superior molecular recognition techniques.
In recent decades, the utility of protein/peptide molecules and their inorganic material recognition and binding abilities has come to light. Combinatorial biology tools have enabled researchers to select peptides for various materials such as ceramics, metal oxides, alloys and pure metals. Even though the binding mechanism of peptides hasn’t yet been fully resolved, studies are ongoing and these peptides continue to be used in many nanotechnology applications.
The Spotlight article further describes the approach being undertaken,
… researchers at Alberta’s first nanotechnology accelerator laboratory (Ingenuity Lab) are looking to take advantage of inorganic binding peptides for mining valuable and rare earth elements/metals that exist in nature or synthetic materials.
Rare earth elements (REE) are sought after materials that facilitate the production of electrical car batteries, high power magnets, lasers, fiber optic technology, MRI contrast agents, fluorescent lightening and much more. Despite increasing demand, mining and processing yields are not enough to satisfy the growing need. This is mainly due to the great loss during mining (25-50%) and beneficiation (10-30%).
Since REEs exist as a mixture in mineral ores, their beneficiation and separation into individual metals requires unique processes. Depending on the chemical form of the metal, different compounds are necessary during beneficiation steps to convert minerals into metal nitrates, oxides, chlorides and fluorides, which would be further extracted individually. Furthermore, this process must be followed with solvent separation to obtain individual metals. These excessive steps not only increase the production cost and energy consumption but also decrease the yield and generate environmental pollution due to the use of various chemicals and organic solvents.
… Ingenuity Lab is working on generating smart biomaterials composed of inorganic binding peptides coated on the core of magnetic nanoparticles. These smart materials will expose two functions; first they will recognize and bind to a specific REE through the peptide region and they will migrate to magnetic field by the help of Iron Oxide core.
You can find more detail and illustrations in the Spotlight article.
There is biomining research being performed in at least one other lab (in China) as I noted in a Nov. 1, 2013 posting about some work to remove REEs from wastewater and where I noted that China had announced a cap on its exports of REEs.
Tim Harper’s Cientifica emerging technologies and business consultancy offers a white paper (free), Simply No Substitute? [2013?], which contextualizes and provides insight into the situation with REEs and other other critical materials. From Cientifica’s Simply No Substitute? webpage,
There is increasing concern that restricted supplies of certain metals and other critical minerals could hinder the deployment of future technologies. This new white paper by Cientifica and Material Value, Simply No Substitute? takes a critical look at the current technology and policy landscape in this vital area, and in particular, the attempts to develop substitutes for critical materials.
A huge amount of research and development is currently taking place in academic and industrial research laboratories, with the aim of developing novel, innovative material substitutes or simply to ‘engineer-out’ critical materials with new designs. As an example, our analysis shows the number of patents related to substitutes for rare earth elements has doubled in the last two years. However, the necessity and effectiveness of this research activity is still unclear and requires greater insight. Certainly, as this white paper details, there is no universal agreement between Governments and other stakeholders on what materials are at risk of future supply disruptions.
In an effort to ensure the interests of end-users are represented across this increasingly complex and rapidly developing issue, the publication proposes the creation of a new industry body. This will benefit not just end-users, but also primary and secondary producers of critical materials, for who it is currently only feasible to have sporadic and inconsistent interaction with the diverse range of industries that use their materials.
You can download the white paper from here.
Getting back to Ingenuity Lab, there is no research paper mentioned in the Spotlight article. Their website does offer this on the Mining page,
The extraction of oil and gas is key to the economic prosperity of Alberta and Canada. We have the third largest oil reserves in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Not only is our oil and gas sector expected to generate $2.1 trillion in economic activity across Canada over the next 25 years, Canadian employment is expected to grow from 75,000 jobs in 2010 to 905,000 in 2035. However, it’s not without its impacts to the environment. This, we know. There are great strides being made in technology and innovation in this sector, but what if we could do more?
Then, there’s this from the site’s Biomining subpage,
Using a process called biomining, the research team at Ingenuity Lab is engineering new nano particles that have the capability to detect, extract or even bind to rare earth and precious metals that exist in nature or found in man-made materials.
Leveraging off of the incredible advances in targeted medical therapies, active nanoparticle and membrane technologies offer the opportunity to recover valuable resources from mining operations while leading to the remediation of environmentally contaminated soil and water.
Biomining technology offers the opportunity to maximize the utility of our natural resources, establish a new path forward to restore the pristine land and water of our forefathers and redefine Canada’s legacy of societal environmental, and economic prosperity.
Finally, there’s this page (Ingenuity Attracts Attention with Biomining Advances) which seems to have originated the Spotlight article and is the source of the images in the Spotlight article. I am curious as to whose attention they’ve attracted although I can certainly understand why various groups and individuals might be,
… Ingenuity’s system will also be able to work in a continuous flow process. There will be a constant input of metal mixture, which could be mine acid drain, tailing ponds or polluted water sources, and smart biomaterial. Biomaterial will be recovered from the end point of the chamber together with the targeted metal. Since the interaction between the peptide and the metal of interest is not covalent bonding, metal will be removed from the material without the need for harsh chemicals. This means valuable materials, currently discarded as waste, will be accessible and the reuse of the smart biomaterial will be an option, lowering the purification cost even more.
These exciting discoveries are welcome news for the mining industry and the environment, but also for communities around the world and generations to come. Thanks to ingenuity, we will soon be able to maximize the utility of our precious resources as we restore damaged lands and water.
In any event I hope to hear more about this promising work with more details (such as: At what stage is this work?, Is it scalable?) and the other research being performed at Ingenuity Lab.