DARPA is interested in Biomining to reduce US dependence on Chinese rare earths

With the hardening of tensions between the United States and China, a concern very quickly appeared as for the rare earth supply, named after this group of 17 metals offering unique electromagnetic properties, for its industry, and in particular the aeronautics and defense industry, which is a major consumer of these materials. However, Beijing still controls 37% of the world's identified reserves, 70% of the production of rare earth oxides on a global scale, and 95% of the production of transformed elements. It quickly became critical for Washington to secure this sector., by multiplying the sources of supply, by encouraging several partners, such as Australia and Brazil, to increase their production and refining capacities, and by trying to find deposits on their own soil. However, the extraction and transformation of rare earths is a process that is both expensive, and above all very damaging to the environment, which does not facilitate its development in many countries which nevertheless have proven resources.

Faced with this observation, DARPA, the research and innovation agency of the Department of La Défense, has launched an ambitious program, aimed at exploiting an already well-known technology to extract other metals, and which is much less polluting and restrictive than traditional processes, Biomining. Its principle is simple, since it involves using the capacity of certain microorganisms to extract and absorb these metals in ionic form from a "contaminated" environment, to then extract these metals by precipitating the ions contained in the cells. of these microbes. The process was demonstrated in 1951 by Doctor Kenneth Temple, who observed that the protobacteria A. ferrooxidans developed wonderfully in a solution rich in ferric ions. Since then, it has been developed on an industrial scale, and several countries, including South Africa and Brazil, use it for the extraction of Copper, Iron, Gold but also Uranium.

the extraction and transformation of rare earths are based on extremely polluting and energy-consuming processes.

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