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New sources for rare metals have been discovered by researchers investigating alternative sources of the much sought after heavy rare earth metals that are used in every day modern technologies, such as renewables production, mobile phones, laptops and televisions.
Samples from Madagascar and China were analysed at Diamond using an intense X-ray source, the Microfocus beamline I18, which is designed for high spatial resolution analyses of heterogeneous samples.
The team, led by the Universities of St Andrews and Brighton, found that the rare earths are loosely stuck to the surfaces of clay particles. By comparing samples from a weathered volcanic complex in Madagascar to those mined in China, the study provides key insights into how nature produces easily-leachable, economically viable, rare earth deposits.
Research focussed on tracing a specific group of metals known as the rare earth elements. These include metals such as neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium which are crucial components in technologies ranging from phones, computers, military or medical appliances to wind turbines and electric vehicles.
Tina Geraki, Beamline Scientist on I18, said:
This impressive work by Dr Anouk Borst, from the University of St. Andrews, and her colleagues is a prime example of how scientists can utilise niche techniques such as what Diamond offers, to help answer some of the most essential questions of our times, in this case how do you continue providing the rare metals that are essential in modern technologies but in a more sustainable and environmentally aware manner.
Modern technologies, such as those producing green energy from renewable resources like wind and water, require many tonnes of rare, so-called e-tech metals. Mining of e-tech metals can be costly, environmentally challenging and energy intensive. This is particularly true for metals sourced from rocks formed in ancient mountain belts or volcanoes, which must be excavated, crushed and then processed to separate valuable metals from the rest.
The demand for rare earth metals is set to grow exponentially over the next few decades, as ambitious clean energy projects are being developed globally. However, most economies still find themselves relying heavily on imports from China. At present, China produces roughly 77 per cent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements. The rarest rare earths, particularly those used in permanent magnets, are primarily sourced from ion adsorption clay deposits, or laterites, formed by tropical weathering of rocks such as granite and syenite in Southern China.
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