Center ICE Funds Novel Environmentally Sustainable Rare Earth Element Extractions

February 8, 2021

Michael Martinez, undergraduate student in Biological Sciences is working with Brandon Briggs. Photo by James Evan, UAA.

Rare earth elements are vital to the U.S. economy, as they are used in a variety of consumer goods including computers, batteries, cell phones, and fluorescent lighting, and they are critical in defense and healthcare industries.

Brandon Briggs, associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Department of Biological Sciences, is currently pursuing a patent for a biotechnological advance that uses microbes to extract REEs from coal.

Alaska has the potential to produce and export REEs to the world if a sustainable, economic, and environmentally sound process was implemented. The process that Briggs has developed is a non-acidic method that liberates REE ions in water using microbes that perform a bioweathering process, thus alleviating some of the inherent safety and environmental issues associated with acids.

Coal, and the clays around the coal, have high concentrations of rare earth elements. After it is mined, the team puts the coal directly in their processing bottles and let the microbes work on it.

Briggs is working with UAF College of Engineering and Mines Associate Professor Tathagata Ghosh and an undergraduate student team for data analysis of his method and testing. This bioweathering process is anticipated to have a 40% lower cost than comparable methods.

The Center ICE seed funds will allow Briggs and his team to explore other feedstock options as well. They are currently looking at other types of mines (gold, copper, graphene) to determine how much of the rare earth elements they contain and if these microbes can extract it from that mineral matrix. The funding will also help to optimize the time needed for the bioweathering process to complete.

For more information on this research, contact Brandon Briggs at