U.S. Department of Energy Announces Teams Selected to Explore Critical Mineral Extraction from Ocean Macroalgae

Three Projects Will Study Macroalgae as Potential Source of Critical Rare Earth Elements

Press and General Inquiries:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced $5 million in funding for three projects to evaluate the feasibility of extracting Rare Earth Elements (REEs) and Platinum Group Metals (PGMs) from macroalgae for use in energy applications. REEs are critical to produce high performance electric motors and generators, and PGMs are central to decarbonization technologies such as water electrolyzers for hydrogen production, fuel cells for energy production, and catalysts for industrial-chemical processes. The three projects announced today support the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to securing a domestic supply chain for critical minerals and achieving our nations net-zero goals.

“We know we need different sets of critical mineral supply chains to reach President Biden’s ambitious clean energy and decarbonization targets,” said ARPA-E Director Evelyn N. Wang. “The teams announced today are up for the challenge of exploring the environmental, temporal, and ecological factors that influence the content of REEs and PGMs in macroalgae, and then developing methods to extract these critical minerals. I’m glad these teams are joining ARPA-E’s strong ocean portfolio, and I look forward to seeing the technologies they develop.”

The teams announced today—from a national lab, university, and small business—are set to receive funding through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Critical Mineral Extraction from Ocean Macroalgal Biomass Exploratory Topic. The following teams will evaluate the capabilities of macroalgal varieties to accumulate critical minerals and the ability to efficiently extract these minerals in an economically viable form:

  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) (Sequim, WA) will study methods to efficiently extract REEs and PGMs from hyper-accumulating species of marine macroalgae. Extraction methods will also re-utilize chemical extractants and retain the value of the algae for other purposes such as biofuels and other industrial feedstocks, resulting in minimal tailings. New instrumentation capability at PNNL will allow for greater analysis of the biological variability of minerals and metals, and the team will develop—among other advancements—substances to extract metals using specialized molecules that bind to rare earths in solution. (Award amount: $1,350,000)
  • Umaro Foods (Berkeley, CA) will leverage advancements in chelator technology to efficiently extract REEs and PGMs from seaweeds. They will be applying advanced metal chelator molecules to selectively extract metals in a non-destructive manner from process streams producing valuable food-grade seaweed proteins and commodities such as agar, alginate, and carrageenan. Combined with these co-commodities, the development of a sustainable and efficient extraction process from seaweed could bring about an independent, sustainable, and strategically resilient supply of REEs located within the United States. (Award amount: $1,782,000)
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks (Fairbanks, AK) will investigate the accumulation potential of REEs in hyper-accumulating native seaweed species growing around the coast of the Bokan Mountain rare earth element deposit in Southeast Alaska. The project will conduct a comprehensive environmental survey to understand how natural erosion transports rare earth elements from ridge to ocean. The team will then collect native seaweed species and conduct biomass tissue chemical composition and polymer analysis to create maps of coastal sites rich in REEs bound to biological materials, along with cultivation guidelines to harvest optimal mineral concentrations. This has the potential to guide the selection of seaweed species and farm designs for large-scale cultivation and inform the maximum scalability of seaweed farming operations designed to harvest REEs without the use of traditional mining operations. (Award amount: $1,878,116)

More information and complete project descriptions for the teams announced today can be found on the ARPA-E website.

Selection for award negotiations is not a commitment by DOE to issue an award or provide funding. Before funding is issued, DOE and the applicants will undergo a negotiation process, and DOE may cancel negotiations and rescind the selection for any reason during that time.