University of Brighton researchers have received a £97,000 grant to study ways to make sourcing vital rare earth elements less environmentally damaging.
Researchers from the School of Applied Sciences and the Centre for Earth Observation Science have been awarded a Global Partnership Seedcorn Fund Grant by the Natural Environment Research Council, to investigate the role of rock weathering in generating deposits of Rare Earth Elements (REEs).
REEs are part of a group of elements known as lanthanides which are crucial components in things such as high power magnets used in renewable power generation and low carbon transport. They are, however, in limited supply worldwide, and University of Brighton researchers will explore ways to access supplies in a more sustainable manner by examining the presence of REEs in rocks that have already been partly broken down by natural erosion.
REEs are primarily sourced from carbonatites – rock crystallised from carbonate magma – and weathering over geological time periods can break these down and redistribute the most valuable mineral elements in a form that makes them easier to extract in ways that reduce the environmental impact of the process – such as simple chemical leaching, rather than more destructive or energy-wasteful methods.
Professor Martin Smith will lead the Brighton research team, along with Dr Laura Evenstar. They will collaborate with colleagues from the University of Exeter, plus international researchers at Wuhan and Peking Universities in China, and Mendel University in the Czech Republic.
The project – running until March 2022 – will define key scientific questions regarding processes around the formation of REE deposits in weathered carbonatites, as well as testing analytical techniques geared to finding the best potential use of these deposits. The University of Brighton team recently ran an online workshop on the topic, which attracted delegates from across five continents. Further workshops are scheduled for 20 January and 3 March.
Professor Martin Smith, Associate Dean for Research and Enterprise in the School of Applied Sciences, said: “This project provides us with opportunity to develop links and exchange knowledge with colleagues in China and across the globe to enhance understanding of the geology underpinning the supply of elements critical to the decarbonisation of the economy”.