The Elements of Innovation Discovered

Missouri S&T innovates minerals recovery

Metal Tech News - April 24, 2024

Researcher Lana Alagha received $875,000 from Rio Tinto to explore gallium and germanium recovery from copper waste streams.

In a landmark development for critical minerals recovery, global mining company Rio Tinto has granted Missouri University of Science and Technology professor Lana Alagha $875,000 for a two-year project that seeks to pioneer novel techniques for extracting the highly sought after critical minerals gallium and germanium from waste generated in copper extraction and refining operations.

"Our project will test new chemical dissolution strategies and purification techniques to produce pure gallium and germanium compounds from these waste materials," said Lana Alagha, a Robert H. Quenon Associate Professor of Mining Engineering. "The new chemicals, or functionalized ionic liquids, we will use were designed specifically for this type of purpose."

A member of Missouri S&T's mining engineering faculty, Alagha is an expert in the field of chemistry, having earned a Ph.D. in materials chemistry from the University of Texas, Dallas.

Alagha, along with one of her former Ph.D. students, Mostafa Khodakarami, were recently awarded patents for the chemicals used for extracting gallium and germanium, which Alagha says will work well due to their ability to effectively separate specific components from the materials.

Called ionic liquids, the patents detail that the use for this new chemical as "enhanced recovery and separation of rare earth elements from aqueous solutions."

While ionic liquids are not a new discovery, as they have been used in a myriad number of applications as solvents, catalysts and electrolytes in electrochemical devices, their use in recovery is still rudimentary.

However, according to the patent submission, "their unlimited potential of tunability makes them great candidates for selective separation and purification applications."

Arriving amidst China's recent restrictions on the exports of gallium and germanium – elements vital for semiconductors, microchips, optics, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and high-tech sectors –the need for a domestic supply of these materials couldn't be more pressing. The Missouri S&T initiative led by Alagha offers a timely alternative.

"There is currently little-to-no production of these two elements in the United States, and we rely to an alarming extent on importing them," she said. "If successfully implemented, our research could lead to a much stronger supply of these important resources."

The professor also states that recovering gallium and germanium from the waste created when processing copper is an unconventional approach, but this type of out-of-the-box thinking is necessary for the U.S. to have a more resilient supply of critical minerals.

Although unconventional, Alagha added that she looks forward to working directly with Rio Tinto as an industry partner for this project.

"Industry partnerships help bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application," she said. "They help facilitate the transfer of knowledge, technologies, and innovations from academia to industry and vice versa. Working with Rio Tinto will help take my research in this area to the next level."

Saskia Duyvesteyn, Chief Advisor of Research and Development at Rio Tinto said the global mining company appreciates this relationship with S&T.

"Rio Tinto is constantly looking for better ways to extract critical minerals from our byproduct streams," she added. "After starting production of tellurium in 2022, we are excited to explore new techniques to produce gallium and germanium compounds in partnership with Dr. Alagha and Missouri S&T. Demand for these critical minerals used in high-tech applications is only going to grow, and we are proud to support efforts to increase domestic production."

Missouri University of Science and Technology

Missouri University of Science and Technology is leading the charge in bringing domestic resource development back to the United States.

For the project, co-principal investigators with Alagha from Missouri S&T include Michael Moats, chair and professor of materials science and engineering, and Marek Locmelis, associate professor of geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering at S&T as well as faculty fellow in research innovation.

In addition to this new undertaking, Alagha is also involved in multiple other projects focusing on mineral recovery using unconventional sources. One of her projects with over $700,000 in funding through the Critical Materials Innovation Hub led by Ames National Laboratory also focuses on extracting gallium and germanium, while another $375,000 project funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory focuses on recovering tellurium, as well as gold and silver.


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