Engineered Microbes for Sustainable Bio-Mining
Rare earth elements (REEs) such as cerium and neodymium are important ingredients in modern electronics. They are also critical to many sustainable energy technologies, including electric vehicles, wind turbines, high-efficiency lighting, batteries, superconductors, and high-strength lightweight alloys. The need for REEs is placing increasing demands on the global REE supply chain. The United States has significant reserves of REEs, yet the environmental footprint of mining and purifying REEs means that the United States depends almost entirely on foreign sources for purified forms of these elements.
A multidisciplinary team of Cornell researchers led by Buz Barstow, Biological and Environmental Engineering, is bioengineering microbes to address the challenges of REE mining and purification. This project integrates expertise in systems and synthetic biology, rare earth geochemistry and mineral synthesis, and microsystems engineering in order to elucidate a set of rules that predict an organism’s phenotype, and to then apply those rules to solve a critical problem in sustainable energy. Using advanced genomics, synthetic biology, and microfluidic laboratory evolution devices, researchers will engineer two sets of exotic microbes: one capable of extracting REE from ores and end-of-life feedstocks such as spent cracking catalysts, coal ash, and electronic waste; and another that can purify mixed REEs into single-element batches.
This research aims to develop technologies that extract and purify REEs selectively and efficiently without the need for harsh solvents and high temperatures. Outcomes from this research could help revitalize the rare earth industry in the United States and provide a new source of critical REEs for future energy technologies.