UTA scientists look to develop domestic sources for rare earth metals
A multidisciplinary team of University of Texas at Arlington researchers led by Robin Macaluso, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Michael Bozlar, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the supply chain for rare earth metals.
Rare earth metals—a set of 17 elements, including praseodymium, terbium, and dysprosium—are critical to the manufacturing of electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, smartphones, computers and satellites. However, only a handful of countries worldwide control the supply of these vital resources. Additionally, the current method of mining and refining these materials is energy intensive and harmful to the environment.
Most of these metals are currently sourced from China, but there are large deposits in other countries, including the United States and Canada. One of the difficulties in gathering the elements comes from the extraction process, which often results in large open pits in the ground that can contaminate the environment and local groundwater.
“It is crucial for the United States to invest in research and development activities around rare earth metals to secure our leadership and autonomy in this area in a sustainable manner,” Macaluso said. “In this project, our team aims to address these challenges with fundamental studies to understand and engineer novel materials to extract and separate rare earth elements using nanomaterials, including graphene.”
Bozlar said the research team’s main objective is to diversify and improve the supply chain for these crucial materials.
“Graphene is truly a wonder nanomaterial that is made of a single layer of carbon atoms. It has many promising applications, and we are very excited to be the first ones to explore at the fundamental level its potential for rare earth metal separation,” he said. “Our multidisciplinary team of materials scientists and chemists is working diligently on separating and sourcing rare earth metals. Meanwhile, we are training undergraduate and graduate students on these techniques to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers.”
Erian Armanios, chair and professor of mechanical engineering, said this research is bound to improve U.S. competitiveness in the production of rare earth metals, calling Bozlar “an innovator driven to solve timely challenges in terms of critical materials, energy, water and carbon emissions.”
Rasika Dias, chair and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said he was pleased with the NSF support for this project and “confident that Dr. Macaluso and her colleagues are on the cusp of finding an earth-friendly way to extract, separate and purify rare earth metals from their natural sources.”