Montana Tech Awarded $24M Grant to Develop Materials Technology for Rare Earth Element Processing Research Program

20/05/22 by madison
Teagan Leitzke, a Ph.D. student at Montana Tech, pours a slurry of magnetite and water into the continuous flow metal recovery system. The slurry flows through the static mixer column to a magnet, where the magnetite is collected, and water continues to flow out of the system. Photo credit: Amanda Badovinac

Montana Technological University (MTU) was recently awarded a five-year, $24M research and development grant from the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) to develop a program called "Materials Technology for Rare Earth Elements Processing." Dr. Jerry Downey, a Montana NSF EPSCoR Track-1 CREWS research lead at MTU, will be the PI for the award, and Dr. Grant Wallace, a Research Associate in Dr. Downey's research group, will act as co-PI. This program, which responds to a critical national need to develop a supply chain for rare earth elements (REE), is a multidisciplinary effort that will use Montana as a model for locating rare earth elements (REE) in primary and secondary sources. A key program task, titled “Selective Separation of REEs from Aqueous Solutions using a Continuous Flow Metal Recovery System (CFMR),” will build on the advances in CFMR development attained in the CREWS project.

The linked research projects in the “Materials Technology for Rare Earth Elements Processing” program will demonstrate that REEs can be produced economically — even from undesirable mining wastes — without environmental damage, thus reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign-based supply chains. The program, carried out in partnership with the on-campus Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology (MBMG), will include analysis of large waste systems of the Butte-Anaconda mining complex and Montana coal mines. In addition, the program will develop innovative, environmentally friendly, and industrially viable methods for recovering and separating REEs, such as pyrometallurgical processing, continuous-flow recovery from aqueous streams, resonant vibratory adsorption to separate REEs, and a method utilizing nanoparticles. This research will utilize state-of-the-art technologies for discovering REEs, including satellite data and unmanned aerial systems, as well as traditional methods. Montana REE resource information will be carefully curated and made available through the MBMG’s open data system to enable replication of the approach in other states with REE potential.

Collectively these activities will contribute substantially to the knowledge base essential to reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign-based supply chains for REEs. REEs are essential to numerous advanced technologies vital to national security and industrial competitiveness. Despite having significant natural deposits within our borders, America lacks active domestic supply chains and foreign domination of the REE market holds the U.S. Armed Forces and numerous U.S. high-tech industries hostage to foreign trade decisions. This research program will lay the groundwork for economically and environmentally utilizing sound domestic REE sources to escape dependence on foreign REE sources and ensure America’s continuing strategic dominance.