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DARPA seeks input on novel methods to separate, purify rare earth elements
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the United States was the world's major supplier of REEs; today, it imports nearly 100% of REEs used in commercial products and exports some domestically mined REE minerals for economic processing overseas.
DARPA seeks input on novel methods to separate, purify rare earth elements
by Emma Late
Washington DC (SPX) Jul 14, 2023

In a pivotal move toward fostering greater sustainability and energy efficiency in the extraction and purification of Rare Earth Elements (REEs), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking input on cutting-edge methodologies. REEs, a group of 17 elements including scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanide series, are integral to a broad array of technologies such as permanent magnets, catalysts, fiber optics, and phosphor displays, serving as essential components in wind turbines, cell phones, and electric vehicles.

In light of their significance, the process of extraction, separation, and purification of REEs from complex feedstock has often proved problematic due to the environmental degradation it can cause, along with energy inefficiency, and the challenges of securing permits in the United States.

To address this issue, DARPA will host a hybrid workshop on July 25, intending to offer a comprehensive overview and facilitate a detailed technical discussion on the Separation and Purification of Rare Earth Elements (SPREE) Advanced Research Concept (ARC) opportunity. The SPREE ARC opportunity aims to solicit innovative ideas on how to purify Department of Defense (DoD)-relevant REEs in a manner that is environmentally sustainable, energy-efficient, and commercially viable, all while aligning with U.S. domestic mining sector capabilities.

According to DARPA Innovation Fellow Dr. Rebecca Chmiel, "Solving the technological challenge of separating rare earths from each other is critical for establishing a secure domestic supply chain of strategic materials and requires a re-examination of the fundamental physics and chemistries of these elements." The SPREE workshop's objective is to bolster researchers with new ideas by providing insights from government and industry about the field and guiding them on how to apply for the SPREE opportunity.

The relevance of this initiative is even more striking given the historical context. Between the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the United States was a leading supplier of REEs globally. However, the current landscape sees the U.S. importing nearly all of its REEs used in commercial products and exporting some domestically mined REE minerals for overseas processing.

This dependence on foreign processing and purification poses a considerable vulnerability to the U.S. supply chain. By developing a domestic manufacturing industry to extract and purify REE resources, this dependency could be mitigated. Unfortunately, the existing methods of extraction and separation of REEs, particularly from each other, are often complex, inefficient, and energy-intensive. They also tend to generate substantial quantities of hazardous waste due to the use of toxic reagents and solvents.

Such processes lead to significant commercial barriers for domestic mining and refining of REEs, including difficulties in domestic permitting due to predicted environmental impacts. To overcome these challenges, the SPREE initiative aims to develop groundbreaking strategies for separating REEs from commercially feasible source mixtures to commercially useful products, all in an economically viable and environmentally friendly way.

The hybrid workshop will be held on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. EDT. The in-person portion of the hybrid workshop will be hosted at the Association of the United States Army Conference and Event Center located at 2425 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22201. The online portion will take place via Zoom. Registration is required for all workshop attendees (in-person and online). Registration closes Monday, July 24, 2023 at 12:00 p.m. EDT.

For more details, view the SPREE Workshop special notice: To register, visit here.

Related Links
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

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