Wayne State Receives $3.1M Grant to Research Alternative Rare Earth Elements

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit have been awarded a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ERDC program to seek alternative sources of rare earth elements critical to advanced military and consumer technologies.
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Europium is an internal transition metal forming part of the rare earth group, a set of 17 elements that are plentiful in the earth’s crust but are rarely found concentrated in large ore deposits. // Courtesy of WSU
Europium is an internal transition metal forming part of the rare earth group, a set of 17 elements that are plentiful in the earth’s crust but are rarely found concentrated in large ore deposits. // Courtesy of WSU

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit have been awarded a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ERDC program to seek alternative sources of rare earth elements critical to advanced military and consumer technologies.

The project, Rare Earths from U.S. Extractions — or REUSE — will focus on both basic and related applied research in science and engineering with the goal of developing a U.S. rare earth element supply chain as well as a process of handling waste streams.

REUSE is led by two principal investigators, Matthew J. Allen, chair and professor of chemistry in the WSU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Timothy M. Dittrich, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the WSU College of Engineering.

Rare earth elements are a set of 17 elements that are plentiful in the earth’s crust but are rarely found concentrated in large ore deposits.

The elements have a diverse magnetic, chemical, electrical, optical, and catalytic properties that in the past four decades have been increasingly beneficial in advanced military and consumer technologies, as well as electronics that involve unique metal alloys, optical displays, magnets, and lasers.

According to Dittrich, domestic production of these elements has decreased over the past 40 years such that China is now the primary global supplier of REE’s, producing more than 80 percent of the world’s supply.

“It is critical that the identification, characterization, and recovery of domestic REE resources is enhanced in the United States to maintain critical national security and technological advances,” says Dittrich. “Our goal is to develop strategies to mitigate potential supply disruptions by investigating alternative sources of rare earth elements from traditional and overlooked feedstocks.”

The team will apply advanced characterization tools to evaluate potential sources, conduct fundamental research into a system to extract and separate rare earth elements, and develop a process resulting in products and a sustainable waste management plan for them.

“The team includes 11 faculty members from Wayne State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering, and one faculty member from the University of California Los Angeles,” says Allen. “Graduate students, undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and staff from those research groups will be involved in performing the proposed studies with the faculty members. Additionally, the project involves active collaborations with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center.”

Stephen M. Lanier, vice president for research at Wayne State, says, “This is a great example of bringing together a talented research team across colleges who will assemble to do something special. This important project would not be possible without this type of collaboration.”

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