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Two new research programmes have received significant funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Image credit: www.shutterstock.com

Exeter lead pioneering research into elements crucial for low carbon technologies

The University of Exeter has received high-level funding for crucial research into accessing essential elements needed for a variety of environmental technologies that will provide cleaner energy and more efficient energy usage.

Two new research programmes, led by or featuring experts from the University’s Camborne School of Mines at the Penryn Campus, Cornwall, have received the significant funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

They are among four new research projects nationwide that have received investment from NERC, as part of its Security of Supply of Minerals programme. The funding was confirmed at a special event held at the Natural History Museum, London, on November 10.

The pioneering new research aims to find out more about how these “e-tech” elements behave within the Earth and the environmental implications of mining them.

NERC’s Security of Supply of Minerals programme will enhance global security of supply of these e-tech elements in two ways: through improved understanding of how they move through natural systems, and by using this information to develop better ways of recovering them to reduce the environmental damage this currently causes.

Professor Frances Wall, from CSM, is leading one of the projects, entitled SoS RARE. The research seeks to understand the movement and concentration of the soft, silvery rare earth metal, neodymium, and heavy rare earth elements in natural systems. The project will also develop new processes that will lower the environmental impact of rare earth element extraction and recovery.

Professor Wall said: “Our team, from five UK universities and the British Geological Survey, has the diverse skills needed to make a world-leading impact in this area and we are working directly with industry partners who are seeking to develop new mines. Our aim is not just to help new mines open but to enable the highest possible standards in responsible sourcing of these essential elements.”

Professor Hylke Glass, a Mining and Minerals Engineering Expert, is also part of a second project to receive funding, called CoG3. The aim of the project is to understand the natural behaviour and biogeochemistry of cobalt, in order to develop and apply new processing strategies using living organisms to extract and recover the element.

Professor Glass added: “CoG3 is a consortium of seven prominent UK institutions which contribute scientific expertise in geology, geomicrobiology and geometallurgy to the project. The project has already attracted significant interest from global mining companies, supporting the objective of developing large-scale technologies and methods for extraction of cobalt from new or underutilised ores."

The Security of Supply of Minerals programme centres on four projects, involving more than 50 industrial partners, more than 20 universities and research organisations.

NERC is investing more than £8m in total, for research projects that ensure we have access to pivotal “e-tech” elements needed to develop green energy technologies such as large wind turbines and all hybrid and electric vehicles.

At present, many of the elements are by-products of extracting more common minerals, and haven’t been widely mined on a commercial scale before. Now, two global pressures on the use of mineral resources are putting environmental issues into the spotlight. Firstly, population growth and greater consumption of natural resources are pushing the demand for these minerals to new levels. Secondly, global efforts to protect the environment and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are increasing demand for metals that support low carbon technologies.

Date: 11 November 2015

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