Many essential products, from smartphones and magnets to electric vehicles, semiconductors and wind turbines, need rare earth metals to perform.
The rapidly growing demand for these critical products has led to increased need for domestic production of rare earth elements (REEs). However, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation is still lagging globally behind countries such as China, with just over 14% of the world’s REE raw ore production and none of the world’s refining capacity. Purdue University is changing this harsh reality by using its patented rare earth technology in a partnership with Indiana-based ReElement Technologies in an effort to narrow the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world in this critical industry.
Critical rare earth element technologies from Hasler Ventures LLC and Purdue University, which were developed in the laboratory of Nien-Hwa Linda Wang, Purdue’s Norman and Jane Li Professor in Chemical Engineering, uses ligand-assisted chromatography for separation and purification of rare earth and other critical elements from coal, coal byproducts, ores, recycled permanent magnets and lithium-ion batteries. This technology has enabled ReElement Technologies to develop and construct a much-needed environmentally safer domestic supply chain of critical materials and offer this capability to U.S. producers of both recycled and ore-sourced rare earth metals.
“Purdue Innovates continues to support inventors and entrepreneurs,” said Purdue University president Mung Chiang. “This Purdue-originated technology in the hands of an Indiana company will help America lead in this essential area for industries ranging from semiconductors to EV batteries.”
“Rare earth and other scarce, critical minerals play an important role in semiconductor manufacturing,” said Mark Lundstrom, Purdue University’s chief semiconductor officer and the Don and Carol Scifres Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “As the U.S. re-shores semiconductor manufacturing, this Purdue-Indiana company partnership can have great impact.”
The 17 distinct REEs are found in a wide variety of new-age technology and are key ingredients for magnets, metal alloys, polishing powders, catalysts, ceramics and phosphors, which are important for high-tech and clean energy applications. The REEs cerium, europium, gadolinium, lanthanum, terbium and yttrium are essential in semiconductor production, with any cut in supplies creating a crippling effect on current U.S. efforts to reestablish a domestic semiconductor industry.
“This nation has to create solutions that address several questions,” said Purdue’s John Sutherland, professor and Fehsenfeld Family Head of Environmental and Ecological Engineering. “Can we find new domestic sources for critical materials such as rare earth elements? Can we discover other materials that might be just as effective? Can we recover the critical materials from used products — for example, getting something out of a used battery or an electronic device?
“This Purdue technology offers a lot of exciting possibilities and will hopefully lead to devising key solutions to a very big problem.”
According to a Rare Earth Metals Global Market Report, the rare earth metals industry grew more than 10% year-over-year, from $6.58 billion in 2022 to $7.29 billion in 2023. Experts project the rare earth metals global market to grow to nearly $10 billion by 2027. The value of products that require rare earth metals to function is valued at more than $4 trillion per year.
Ben Wrightsman, president of ReElement Technologies and a graduate of Purdue’s electrical engineering program in Indianapolis, said, “The market demand for high-purity rare earth and critical minerals is rapidly increasing for both commercial applications and national security applications. At ReElement, the stakes are set high for us to perform not only for our shareholders but also for our nation as we continue to scale our production of high-purity battery and magnet-grade materials. It’s exciting to have such a positive working relationship between ReElement and our Purdue team to continually invest back into the technology for further application expansion and optimization.”
Research with ReElement is part of Purdue’s established history of partnering with Indiana-based companies, a key initiative that will continue to expand with the July launch of Purdue University in Indianapolis. As Purdue’s first comprehensive urban campus, Purdue University in Indianapolis will bring a collaborative platform to the capital city to connect with businesses, promoting new breakthrough research while further addressing real-world needs, such as rare earth elements production, for the city, state and nation.
Nationally, Purdue is already leading the way in microelectronics materials, devices, chip design, tool development, manufacturing, packaging and sustainability, spanning the semiconductor ecosystem in software and hardware with long-standing faculty excellence. As part of its Purdue Computes initiative, the university’s growing semiconductor innovation ecosystem includes $49 million in new facilities and tools for the Birck Nanotechnology Center, which will also be accessible by Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana’s statewide community college and a local partner with Purdue in developing next-level workforce and brain gain strategies for the state. The Indiana-led proposal Silicon Crossroads was part of the first major program funded through the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. Announced by the U.S. Department of Defense, it is one of eight Microelectronics Commons Hubs selected out of over 80 proposals across the country. The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane), in Indiana will manage the program.
Founded as American Rare Earth in 2016, ReElement Technologies acquired Purdue University’s rare earth element and critical materials purification patent in 2021, beginning a partnership with Purdue to develop and commercialize rare earth and critical materials separation and purification technology. ReElement Technologies also deploys the world’s first metal recovery technology that accepts both end-of-life products and virgin ores as feedstock and recovers their REEs and critical battery metals at purities ready for remanufacture. Its recovery technology is versatile and capable of refining manufacturing waste, recycled permanent magnets, lithium-based batteries, black mass and virgin ores.
Source: Purdue University