Tag Archives: rare earths

Could bacteria take up jobs mining in space? Turns out, they could

This year has certainly been all about microbes, and a new paper keeps this trend going — but not how you’d expect.

Sphingomonas desiccabilis growing on basalt rock.

Microbes can help extract economically-important materials from rocks in zero-gravity, a new paper reports. The findings showcase the potential of microscopic life in such applications even in space. They also point to the possibility of ‘biomining’ being used as a critical transition step before settling another planet.

The smallest miners

Rare earth elements are, as their name suggests, quite rare. But they’re also critical for high-tech applications due to their often-unique physical and chemical properties. Due to their rarity, such elements are very challenging and expensive to mine and refine, and we’re limited in how much we can produce. Demand for such materials will soon outstrip supply. One solution, however, may lie just above the skies.

Having the ability to identify and isolate rare earth elements will be extremely important for humanity as we seek to expand to other worlds — bonus points if we can do it easily and cheaply. Microbes are already used in this role on Earth, and the new study reveals that they can work just as well in low- or zero-gravity conditions.

The team worked with three species of bacteria (Sphingomonas desiccabilis, Bacillus subtilis, and Cupriavidus metallidurans) in microgravity conditions that simulated the environment aboard the ISS or that on Mars. They measured how efficiently these could leech 14 rare earth elements from basalt rocks, which are very similar to those on the surface of the Moon and Mars. Trials on Earth were carried out in parallel with these experiments to give the team a control group in normal gravity conditions.

All in all, S. desiccabilis successfully extracted the elements from rocks in all three gravity conditions. It was quite effective across all conditions and showed the highest extraction efficiency (around 70%) of all the bacteria tested with the elements Cerium and Neodymium. The other two species were either less effective in low gravity conditions (compared to normal gravity), or were completely unable to perform the task.

The findings suggest that not all the species we use for mining here on Earth would function well, or at all, in other gravity conditions. However, they also clearly show that some of these species would. Identifying which ones these are will be a species-by-species process, but it would definitely pay off in the long term.

That being said, the idea of carrying microorganisms from Earth to another planet is quite a philosophical can of worms. While it may definitely help us extract the things we need from deposits far away, such a step risks fundamentally altering (or replacing) a celestial body’s biosphere.

The paper “Space station biomining experiment demonstrates rare earth element extraction in microgravity and Mars gravity” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Hot spring bacteria need rare earths to survive

Researchers have found that methane-decomposing bacteria from hot springs need rare earths to produce the energy they need to survive.

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Rare Earth Elemenets (REE), or rare earth metals as they are sometimes called are a group of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the so-called lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. They are among the most valuable chemical elements, as they are used in a myriad of applications, including in mobile telephones, display screens and computers and photovoltaic panels – they are indispensible to many organisms as well. A team of researchers has now discovered a bacteria which relies on rare earths to grow – in a hot spring. The fact that Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum requires rare metals such as lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium or neodymium to grow seems to suggest that the use of rare earths is possibly more widespread among bacteria than previously thought.

The 17 elements are not in fact as rare as you might think – they’re way more widespread than gold or platinum for example; the main problem lies within their relatively even distribution across all the crust, which makes mining economically viable only in a few places (most of which are in China).

However, in living organisms, rare earths are in fact rare. It takes a whole lot for them to dissolve in water so they don’t really go well with metabolic transformations. So when scientists from the Max Planck institute found them in a mudpot of volcanic origin in the Solfatara crater in Italy they were pretty surprised. After further research however, they found a microbe which not only tolerates rare earths, but absolutely needs them to thrive.

Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum belongs to a group of bacteria which live in extreme environments: temperatures of 50-60 degrees Celsius and pH of 2-4, sometimes even as low as 1, which is basically more acidic then sulphuric acid. These microbes take their energy requirements from methane – but they used a rather strange process to do it, using special enzyme, methanol dehydrogenase, which processes the methanol produced by methane decomposing – and that’s where the rare earths fit in.

“Suddenly, everything fit together,” explains Thomas Barends. “We were able to show that this mysterious atom must be a rare earth. This is the first time ever that rare earths have been found to have such a biological function.” Methylacidiphilum uses the rare earths lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium and neodymium in its methanol dehydrogenase instead of calcium. The bacterium needs them to produce energy from methane.

It’s not yet clear if this could provide an economic advantage in mining rare earths.

Scientific reference.

RareEarths-pricing

Afghanistan sits on $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits. Is this a game changer?

(c) BBC

(c) BBC

America’s longest war (or second-longest for sure) in history is expected to end in 2014 once with the retreat of US forces from Afghanistan. Currently members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan are heading for the exits, leaving the US alone in securing the country. That’s not all they leave behind, though. They also leave a war shattered and barren Afghanistan,and  at they same time they leave a country whose resources might skyrocket the country into potential peace and prosperity in a foreseeable future – if, and that’s a really big IF, Afghanistan can settle many of its internal struggles (corruption, civil war, talibal uprisings, education etc.) and fend off foreign corporate interests.

Afghanistan has always been regarded has a very mineral-rich country, however recent surveys reveal that the country is actually home to even more resources than previously thought. For instance, copper, cobalt, iron, barite, sulfur, lead, silver, zinc, niobium abound in the country and, most importantly, some 1.4 million metric tons of rare earth elements (REEs) are believed to be lie beneath Afghan soil. U.S. agencies estimate Afghanistan’s mineral deposits to be worth upwards of $1 trillion and in fact, a classified Pentagon memo called Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” It’s worth mentioning though that lithium isn’t technically a rare earth mineral, but it falls more or less in the same class since it’s used for the same purposes as REEs.

Rare earth elements that go into the production of a Chevy Volt.

Rare earth elements that go into the production of a Chevy Volt.

Rare earth elements are indispensable for today’s modern technology. These resources are indispensable in the manufacturing of essential components that go into televisions, cell phones, batteries, fibers optics, lasers, just about any kind of modern hardware you can think of. This includes military applications as well, which is why US Congress called rare earth elements “critical to national security (*wink).

RareEarths-pricingToday, a whooping 97% of all rare earth elements supply is controlled by China! The country took advantage of their strong position, and repeatedly manipulated the market by slowing down, and at times, halting exports all together in some parts of the world, citing pollution prevention. China reached this position not because they control the single largest REEs deposit in the world, but because they thought ahead. Science and technology has evolved at a huge pace in the past few decades, and the Chinese were wise enough to foresee that this would come with a huge demand for REEs. As such they started their mining operations decades before other countries.

China might lose its foothold as the market share of REEs will diversify in the future, with  new REE mines coming online in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Vietnam, even in the US where the first mines could become operational by 2015. Afghanistan with its huge stockpile could join ranks, something that could finally propel the country out of its financial and spiritual misery. On another note, some researchers are exploring the possibilities of synthesizing rare earth elements and are developing rare earth elements recycling methods in order to reduce supply dependency.

It was known that Afghanistan is abundant in a slew of valuable minerals ever since the soviet’s decade long occupation of the region. The extent of their deposits has been refined recently after the country was mapped using what I believe to be a simply staggering display of science and technology: “broad-scale hyper-spectral data”. Basically, this technology allows for a highly precise survey of natural resources on the country level by peering beneath Afghanistan’s “skin” using specialized instruments deployed airborne.

Whether Afghanistan will be capable of taping these resources in the next decade looks rather improbable considering its current political context. Poor infrastructure, a huge degree of illiteracy among the population, civil unrest and more factors are sure to deter investors. However, this doesn’t seem to worry China too much. Keen on keeping its firm grip on REEs, China is eager to develop Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, after the country  won exploration rights for copper, coal, oil, and lithium deposits across Afghanistan.

Stephen Haber and Victor Menaldo, political scientists specializing in the research of mineral booms, liken Afghanistan’s situation to that of Mexico in the XIX century, citing political and economic similarities between the two countries then and now. Around that time oil and other valuable minerals significantly changed Mexico, although the country is still struggling with a number of social problems (high corruption, cartel feuds etc.).

For now, it seems Afghanistan will have to settle being the heroin center of the world, where drug trade is funneling billions into the country. Hopefully, Afghanistan might one day grow stable enough to tap its incredible wealth in resources. In time, one of the poorest countries in the world might become one of the wealthiest. Will this money reach the Afghan independent government and its people? Well, that’s a whole different discussion.

Rare Earth minerals to be mined from the seafloor

The next step in prospecting and mining has always been a subject of speculation and theories, ever since the days of Jules Verne. For decades, an idea that flourished more and more was to gather up potato-sized magnanese nodules, rich in nickel, cobalt and manganese, that are very valuable in large quantities. The problem is that pretty much all the time, they lie miles below the seafloor, which obviously poses some serious technical questions.

The classical idea of building giant vacuums to suck up the nodules never proved to be economically sustainable; however, it was recently discovered that these modules are have a high content of rare earth minerals, elements that have a high demand rate but have recently reached a production roadblock. China, which controls about 95% of the worldwide quantity had stopped seeling them, creating huge political and industrial alarms; they stopped the embargo a few weeks ago, but the hunt for other sources still continues – this could give the seabed miners quite a few reasons to smile and rub their hands.

“People are quite intrigued,” said James R. Hein, a geologist with the United State Geological Survey who specializes in seabed minerals. Depending on China’s behavior and the global reaction, he said, “rare earths may be the driving force in the near future.”

About a month ago, Dr. Hein and five colleagues from Germany presented a paper on harvesting the nodules for rare and valuable metals, and concluded that there really is something there.

“They really do add value,” Charles L. Morgan, chairman of the institute, said of the rare earths in an interview. The result, he added, is that the nodules have taken on a new luster. “People are starting to think, ‘Well, maybe these things aren’t so dumb after all.’ ”

Rare earths are quite interesting from a number of perspectives; most of them are not really rare at all, but they rarely gather up in large quantities; some of them are practically neglectable. For example, an isotope of Promethium has only 572 g in the entire Earth’s crust. Right now, they really aren’t extremely important, but things could change pretty quick, especially with the current unstable political situation.

“The global activity is tremendous,” said Dr. Hein of geological survey, referring to undersea exploration as well as processing assessments on land. “Right now, rare earths are not the driving force,” he said. “But for copper and nickel, the prices are there.”