This Exploratory Topic seeks to develop novel approaches in microbiology, synthetic biology and process engineering in support of addressing mining industry challenges to ensure a robust mineral supply chain for clean energy applications. This includes the development of technologies to harness natural resources to produce a robust, clean, non-toxic, and low-cost supply of critical materials. Projects will address one or more research category areas including mineral pre-processing, biomining, mineral post-processing and supplementary abiotic processing.

Critical materials, as well as select rare earth elements and platinum group metals, are an essential part of many tech, defense, and energy applications. Any shortage of any such materials or disruption in their supply chain poses a crucial concern to the security and economic prosperity of the United States. In addition to these CMs, REEs, and platinum group metals, ARPA-E has identified a need for some other base transition metals, including Nickel and Copper. This need results specifically from the growing and expected increase in need for Nickel in the development of lithium-ion batteries and copper for its use in a range of energy efficient technologies. The development of bio-based mining technologies for all of these materials offers potential advantages of lower energy requirements and decrease in production of hazardous by-products.


UPDATED 9/10/20 - ARPA-E's Biotechnologies to Ensure a Robust Supply of Critical Materials for Clean Energy Exploratory Topic supports the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Industries of the Future initiative, supporting the development of key emerging technologies that will shape the nation’s economy and security for years to come.


 

Projects Funded Within This Exploratory Topic


MICHIGAN TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY

IN-SITU BIOLEACHING OF MANGANESE BY DISSIMILATORY REDUCTION

The proposed project will develop a reductive bioleaching process, using bacteria to recover manganese from low-grade U.S. ores. Manganese is key to several common battery technologies, with no substitutes in its major applications. It has not been mined in the US since the 1970s. The mining technology is a major departure from conventional manganese mining because it allows manganese extraction without significant environmental disturbance or the use of toxic chemicals.


UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY

LIGAND FACILITATED BIOACCUMULATION: BIOMINING OF RARE EARTH AND OTHER CRITICAL METALS FROM ELECTRONIC WASTES

The University of California Berkeley will develop a highly selective, environmentally friendly bacterial platform to recover rare earth elements (REEs) from complex electronic waste (E-waste) streams. Feedstocks range from simple (magnet shavings) to complex matrix (printed circuit board recycling waste and used mobile devices). The team will engineer a single bacterial species that acquires REEs from solid feedstocks and converts them to REE minerals at a neutral pH without harsh acids or organic solvents. The team will couple synthetic biology with bioengineering to enhance REE-leaching, uptake, and storage. It will use inexpensive and readily available methanol as the carbon and energy source to support bacterial growth.


PACIFIC NORTHWEST NATIONAL LABORATORY

UNREALIZED CRITICAL LANTHANIDE EXTRACTION VIA SEA ALGAE MINING (UNCLE-SAM): DOMESTIC PRODUCTION OF CRITICAL MINERALS FROM SEAWATER

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will use advanced climate-simulation photobioreactors with access to natural seawater to determine optimized cultivation and rare earth elements (REE) uptake conditions of seaweeds. The team will treat the seaweed biomass with heat and pressure in a process called hydrothermal liquefaction to concentrate its critical mineral portion, while concurrently generating a feedstock for biofuels, bioplastics, and biomedical compounds. Developing this technology could transform the bioproduct and REE mining industries and catalyze the development of a more sustainable future.


TUFTS UNIVERSITY

LIVING FILTER DESIGNS FOR IN-LINE RECOVERY AND SORTING OF CRITICAL MATERIALS

Tufts University will develop “living filter” technology to continuously recover and sort critical materials from electronic waste (E-waste) streams. The goal is improved throughput, specificity, facile recovery/re-utilization, and reduced material/energy consumption. The team aims to develop genetically-encoded bio-membranes capable of specific material enrichment that is environmentally safe. In addition, it will develop microorganism-encapsulated 3D matrices to continuously reduce and collect noble metals. The technology is expected to accelerate the application of biologically enabled materials recovery and improve resource and manufacturing efficiency.


COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

DEVELOPMENT OF BIOLOGICAL AND ELECTROCHEMICAL TECHNOLOGIES FOR THE CLEAN EXTRACTION OF COPPER AND CRITICAL MATERIALS FROM LOW GRADE ORES

Columbia University will develop a novel hydrometallurgical platform that will exploit the electrochemical reduction of copper ores followed by biological leaching of sulfide minerals to recover copper metal. The team’s new platform technology will enable the processing of domestic low-grade copper concentrates with high pyrite concentrations. This will reduce the outsourcing of copper processing to overseas smelters and enable new domestic sources of low-grade copper concentrate to be processed economically. The bacteria involved in the bioleaching process will be genetically modified for fast dissolution kinetics and capture and sequestration of critical platinum group metals found in copper sulfide ores.


CORNELL UNIVERSITY

ENGINEERED MICROORGANISMS FOR ENHANCED RARE EARTH ELEMENT BIO-MINING AND SEPARATIONS

Cornell University will use advanced genomics, synthetic biology and microfluidic laboratory evolution devices to engineer two sets of exotic microbes to (1) extract REE from ores, spent cracking catalysts, coal ash and electronic waste, and (2) purify REE into single element batches. These two sets of engineered organisms will enable high-efficiency, high-selectivity extraction of REE from ore and end-of-life feedstocks, and purification of mixed REE into isolated element solutions, all under benign conditions without the need of harsh solvents and high temperatures. These new technologies could provide a new source of these critical elements for future U.S. energy technologies.