DARPA seeks to use microbes to find rare earth metals

September 9, 2021

The federal agency that helped create the internet, GPS and many other technological innovations is now looking at a more environmentally friendly technology to help find rare earth metals needed for defense applications.

The director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Stefanie Tompkins, said the agency was looking at using microbes to find rare earth metals, a group of 17 elements used in lasers, precision-guided weapons and other military devices.

Rare earth metals are also used to produce non-military products like fiber optics, computers, cell phones, video game consoles and many other items.

China controls between 80 to 90% of the world’s rare earth metals mines and production, a situation that could become a problem if relations with the U.S. ever break down.

The U.S. has only one operational rare earth metals mine, located in Mountain Pass, Calif., but ores extracted there are shipped to China for processing.

Processing the ores to extract the rare earth elements is chemically intensive and often toxic to the environment.

Tompkins said a program called Environmental Microbes as a BioEngineering Resource, or EMBER, could help secure the rare earth elements supply chain for the U.S. and its allies.

"From a DARPA perspective what we're looking at are what are some of the barriers that have made it difficult for the U.S. to maintain dominance in rare earth processing," she said. "One of the things we just launched a new program in is related to bio-mining. The program is called EMBER, and that is about actually designing microbes who can more efficiently, and at scale, and in an environmentally sound way, separate out these rare earth elements from the ore in which they're actually found."

The DARPA effort follows a breakthrough by Purdue University professor Linda Wang, who created a process that extracts rare earth metals from coal ash, the toxic ash left when coal is burned for fuel.

The Purdue Research Foundation, the private foundation that manages intellectual property developed at Purdue, sold exclusive rights to the technology to Hasler Ventures LLC, a Florida-based company founded by retired Purdue executive and former Secretary of Commerce for the State of Indiana Daniel Hasler. Hasler Ventures later sold a license to the process rights to Fishers-based American Resources Corp. and a Canadian company.

DARPA seeks to use microbes to find rare earth metals