Rare-earth elements in mining industry’s waste piles

If the necessary metals can be extracted from previously quarried ore, we can avoid the environmental hazards of new mines and cut back on mining waste.

In his doctoral research, Wenzhong Zhang from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki developed a new material, with which scandium, one of the rare-earth metals, can efficiently be extracted from the waste of the aluminium industry.

The amount of bauxite needed to manufacture one aluminium tin produces some 60 grams of reddish, clay-like substance, red mud that used to be dumped in the sea. Now it is amassing in producer countries, like Greece, as ever growing heaps, and there is over three billion tonnes of this waste in the world today.

- The problem is that the minerals we want are hidden in the waste heaps in very small quantities, and we do not have efficient methods for extracting them, says Wenzhong Zhang.

Producing one beverage can generates about 60 grams of waste. Wenzhong Zhang has developed functional materials to valorize the waste material.

In his research supported by the EU H2020 REDMUD project, Wenzhong Zhang focused on scandium, a currently very interesting element due to its high cost and the mining of it that may soon start in Finland (the Rautalammi deposit). The use of scandium in combination with aluminium will make it possible to manufacture more durable aeroplanes and bicycles, for example, with a lighter structure.

A pinch of white powder is left at the bottom of the test tube. Is this the key that will solve the problem of waste?

Wenzhong Zhang is developing new, functional materials, with which we can capture the metal we want as a clean element, while the rest of the waste remains.

The work of a chemist is like building something from building blocks. Once the blocks fall into place, a usable material is born with features that can be further developed by engineers. One day, the method will be deployable on an industrial scale.

- At the moment, the aluminium industry does not put its focus on the metal extraction methods. It is more interested in looking for solutions that will make an end to the mountains of waste, says Wenzhong Zhang.

At the University of Helsinki, the Academy of Finland-funded USEMA (Ultra-Selective Hybrid Materials for Separation of Group 3 and f-block Element)  project started by Risto Koivula is developing new materials on the basis of the research group’s expertise in methods of inorganic chemistry and ion exchange.

- There are many areas of application, such as transforming waste flows to raw material and development of new processes to destroy radioactive waste, or manufacturing radio-medicine, says Koivula.

Wenzhong Zhang, M.Sc. will defend the doctoral dissertation entitled "Metal(IV) Phosphate Based Functional Materials for Selectively Harvesting Rare-Earth Elements from Bauxite Residue" in the Faculty of Science, University of Helsinki, on 23 November 2018 at 12:00. The public examination will take place at the following address: Chemicum, auditorio A129, A. I. Virtasen Aukio 1.

Professor Freddy Kleitz, University of Vienna, will serve as the opponent, and Professor Gareth Law as the custos.

The dissertation will be published in the series Report Series in Radiochemistry.

The dissertation "Metal(IV) Phosphate Based Functional Materials for Selectively Harvesting Rare-Earth Elements from Bauxite Residueis also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.

More details:

Doctoral Student Wenzhong Zhang, M.Sc.
Phone: + 358 50 4486829
Email: wenzhong.zhang@helsinki.fi

Researcher, group leader Risto Koivula, Ion exchange for nuclear waste treatment and for recycling
Email: Risto.Koivula@helsinki.fi
Phone: + 358 50 4486640

Science communicator Riitta-Leena Inki
Email: riitta-leena.inki@helsinki.fi
Phone: +358 50 448 5770
Twitter: @inkiriitta