Ames Lab: Ames Lab awarded up to $2.89M for fundamental rare-earth separations research

A team led by scientists at Ames Laboratory have been awarded up to $2.89 million by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science to research separation processes taking place in ionic adsorption clays and establish novel geologically-inspired approaches to separate rare earth elements, which is of great importance to the refinement and recovery of materials critical to clean energy technologies.

The award, announced today by the DOE, will support a multi-disciplinary team of scientists studying in detail the molecular processes by which rare earth elements can be separated by clay. The award is part of a group of projects funded to support the DOE strategy to diversify supply, develop substitutes, and improve reuse and recycling of critical minerals and materials.

Rare earth elements occupy a special place on the periodic table– due to their unique properties, they’ve become key ingredients in multiple vital applications, including data storage and clean energy technologies. But ever-increasing demand and supply chain disruptions have prompted science and industries to seek alternative sources, find new ways of extracting and refining rare earths from all sources, and develop novel, more efficient separation methods.

“One of the problems is the geological time scale,” said project leader Tanya Prozorov, an Ames Laboratory scientist. “In nature, this process can take thousands of years and yield unpredictable adsorption of rare earths. We want to understand how this process works, learn to control it, and then replicate it as a faster, more efficient, and tunable process for adsorbing and separating rare earths using layered synthetic clays.”

Prozorov is an expert materials chemist with expertise in electron microscopy who has pioneered the use of new techniques for observing dynamic processes taking place in materials systems in liquid phase and in real time, a capability that lends itself well to understanding the dynamics of this complex process.

“These measurements will give us the kind of insight that we need to make new discoveries and advances in this area,” said Prozorov, who will also be joined by scientists with expertise in catalysis, separations, synthesis, and computational modeling. “This is truly an uncharted territory in science, and one where we’ll have some real impact. We’re excited to get started.”

“The project builds on Ames Lab’s capabilities in separations of rare earths, an area of well-established and recognized expertise at Ames Lab for almost 75 years,” said Ames Laboratory Chief Research Officer James Morris. “It is another way we can harness fundamental science for a sustainable future.”

In addition to Prozorov, the team includes Jared Anderson, Jim Evans, Igor Slowing, Theresa Windus, all scientists in the Chemical and Biological Sciences Division at Ames Laboratory; Alberto Perez-Huerta, an associate professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Alabama; and Shawn Kathmann, a physicist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Preliminary research for this project was supported by Ames Laboratory’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development project titled “Exploring the mobility, complexation, and clustering of rare earth elements in micas and synthetic layered silicates”. The work in this project utilized unique analytical electron microscopy imaging and characterization capabilities to understand the dynamics of adsorption and mechanisms of retention of early and late rare earth elements in natural micas and synthetic layered materials in liquid phase and in situ.

Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science National Laboratory operated by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and interdisciplinary collaborations to solve global problems.

Ames Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

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