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Hidden treasures: S&T researcher aims to recover critical minerals, precious metals from unconventional sources

The United States’ need for critical minerals for manufacturing has reached a crisis level, and researchers at Missouri S&T are leading the charge to develop solutions.

Dr. Lana Alagha, an associate professor of mining engineering at Missouri S&T, recently received a $375,000 grant from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop and enhance methods for recovering critical minerals that are often lost when processing copper.

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“It is true that we are in the midst of a critical minerals crisis, but we actually have large amounts of many of these minerals available in the United States,” she says. “The key is finding cost-effective methods to extract the minerals from tailings and other sources that may be considered unconventional.”

That is why the focus of Alagha’s current grant project includes not only tellurium, which is a critical mineral, but also gold and silver, which the U.S. Geological Survey does not officially consider to be critical minerals but could offset the costs associated with recovering tellurium.

For this project, Alagha will closely examine every step of copper processing with some of the nation’s top suppliers and develop a flowsheet noting how the separation of these other minerals could be enhanced. She says people may consider tailings to be the waste product left over at the end of the process, but waste is accumulated throughout multiple stages.

“During the floatation process for copper ores, the ores are usually mixed with water and task-specific chemicals,” she says. “This will modify their surface properties so that, when air is injected, the copper minerals will selectively attach to air bubbles and float. The foam, or froth, that is created is then skimmed and collected for further upgrading.

“When this happens, other minerals that could be recovered are lost, and we hope to recover them more efficiently.”

Alagha is also involved with several other critical mineral initiatives at Missouri S&T. Her passion about this work comes from its impact on national security, economic development, sustainable resources management, and the national and international collaboration involved with these efforts.

“There is not one perfect solution to the critical minerals crisis that will be discovered by one research team,” she says. “This is an issue that will require a variety of initiatives and is not something that will be solved overnight. It will take multiple projects, and they will all add up and ultimately make a significant difference.”

Some of Alagha’s other projects include potentially recovering critical minerals from smelter dusts, hydrometallurgical approaches to recovering nickel and cobalt from mine tailings, and methods to establish a cradle-to-grave ecosystem for several critical minerals used in the manufacture of microelectronics, magnets, and batteries.

“So many critical minerals are found hidden in major minerals and have been set aside for decades,” Alagha says. “We are now at a point in which it is vital that we develop methods to recover these minerals domestically and in a green manner. Missouri S&T is a leader in these national efforts, and I am proud to be part of such an exceptional group of researchers.”


Source: Missouri S&T

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