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Brighton researchers to explore better sourcing of vital rare earth elements needed in battle to decarbonise

University of Brighton researchers have received a £799,950 grant to explore more efficient and less damaging ways to source vital rare earth elements.

Researchers from the School of Applied Sciences and the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Brighton have been awarded a £799,950 grant by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to investigate the rock weathering processes in generating deposits of Rare Earth Elements (REEs). Information gleaned from the SCREED project should help to predict resource potential and minimise the environmental impact of extraction.

REEs are part of a group of elements that are crucial components in high power magnets used in renewable power generation and low carbon transport. In particular, neodymium and dysprosium are essential for renewable energy devices such as wind turbines and the development of electric motors. 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 weathering.

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-intensive 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 and partners from China, the Czech Republic, Finland and Malawi.

The project – running until June 2026 – will improve knowledge about processes around the formation of REE deposits in weathered carbonatites, raise awareness of the resource requirements of decarbonisation and explore potential routes to increasingly efficient extraction with reduced impact.

Professor Martin Smith, Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the School of Applied Sciences, said: “We will conduct investigations to link climate, geomorphology and geochemistry to predict the resource potential of weather rock. Crucially, this project provides us with the opportunity to enhance understanding of the geology underpinning the supply of elements critical to the decarbonisation of the economy.”

SCREED is one of 44 projects funded by NERC, representing a £25m investment to tackle critical environment challenges.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of NERC, said

“This investment supports researchers’ curiosity and imagination to enable discoveries that unlock new knowledge. The studies will tackle some of the most critical unanswered questions about our planet.

By supporting high risk, high reward environmental science, we are harnessing the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle large-scale, complex challenges.”

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