Rare Earths Extracted from Industrial Waste Stream

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"Our recovery rate varies between 60% and 80%. . . "

Fierce competition over raw materials for new green technologies could become a thing of the past, thanks to a discovery by scientists from the University of Leeds.

Researchers from Leeds' Faculty of Engineering have discovered how to recover significant quantities of rare-earth oxides, present in titanium dioxide minerals. The rare-earth oxides, which are indispensable for the manufacture of wind turbines, energy-efficient lighting and hybrid and electric cars, are extracted or reclaimed simply and cheaply from the waste materials of another industrial process.

If taken to industrial scale, the new process could eventually shift the balance of power in global supply, breaking China's near monopoly on these scarce but crucial resources. China currently holds 95% of the world's reserves of rare earth metals in a multibillion dollar global market in which demand is growing steadily.

"There is a serious risk that technologies that can make a major environmental impact could be held back through lack of the necessary raw materialsóbut hopefully our new process, which is itself much 'greener' than current techniques, could make this less likely," said Professor Animesh Jha, who led the research at Leeds.

The breakthrough came as Professor Jha and his team were fine-tuning a patented industrial process they developed to extract higher yields of titanium dioxide and refine it to over 99% purity. Not only does the technology eliminate hazardous wastes, cut costs and carbon dioxide emissions, the team also discovered they can extract significant quantities of rare earth metal oxides as co-products of the refining process.

"Our recovery rate varies between 60% and 80%, although through better process engineering we will be able to recover more in the future," says Jha. "But already, the recovery of oxides of neodymium (Nd), cerium (Ce) and lanthanum (La), from the waste productsówhich are most commonly found with titanium dioxide mineralsóis an impressive environmental double benefit."

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