Rio Tinto donates $875,000 to Missouri University to research critical minerals recovery from waste

Dr. Lana Alagha in a Missouri S&T mineral processing laboratory. Photo by Michael Pierce/Missouri S&T.

A Missouri University of Science and Technology professor has been awarded $875,000 from Rio Tinto for a two-year project researching new techniques to recover critical minerals in the waste byproducts that come from extracting and refining copper.

Dr. Lana Alagha, a Robert H. Quenon associate professor of mining engineering, and one of her former Ph.D. students, Dr. Mostafa Khodakarami, were recently awarded patents for chemicals which Dr. Alagha says will work well due to their ability to effectively separate specific components from the materials.
“Our project will test new chemical dissolution strategies and purification techniques to produce pure gallium and germanium compounds from these waste materials,” Dr. Alagha said in a news release. “The new chemicals, or functionalized ionic liquids, we will use were designed specifically for this type of purpose.” 
Gallium and germanium are important elements due to their multiple uses with semiconductors, microchips, optics, health care and pharmaceuticals, and other high-tech applications. The federal government considers both elements to be critical minerals.

“There is currently little-to-no production of these two elements in the United States, and we rely to an alarming extent on importing them,” Dr. Alagha says. “If successfully implemented, our research could lead to a much stronger domestic supply of these important resources.” 
She says recovering gallium and germanium from the wastes created when processing copper is an unconventional approach, but this type of out-of-the-box thinking is necessary for the US to have a more resilient supply of critical minerals. 
Both gallium and germanium are more often recovered as a byproduct of other metal refining process, such as with aluminum, zinc and lead, but Alagha says it should be possible to recover both of the elements with the chemical compounds she will develop to dissolve the waste products and with the new purification techniques she will test after that.

Co-principal investigators from Missouri S&T for this project are Dr. Michael Moats, chair and professor of materials science and engineering, and Dr. Marek Locmelis, associate professor of geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering at S&T and faculty fellow in research and innovation.

“Rio Tinto is constantly looking for better ways to extract critical minerals from our byproduct streams,” Dr. Saskia Duyvesteyn, Rio Tinto’s chief advisor of research and development, said in the release.

“After starting production of tellurium in 2022, we are excited to explore new techniques to produce gallium and germanium compounds in partnership with Dr. Alagha and Missouri S&T. Demand for these critical minerals used in high-tech applications is only going to grow, and we are proud to support efforts to increase domestic production.”