ERC Advanced Grant 2012

Rare Earth Element reCYCling with Low harmful Emissions : REE-CYCLE

Principal Investigateur : Professeur Thomas ZEMB
Durée : 60 mois
Site web de l'ERC REE-CYCLE :


It is a matter of strategic independence for Europe to urgently find processes taking better account of environmental and economic issues, when mining and recycling rare earth elements (REE). Currently, there is no such industrial process available and there is no waste recycling for rare earth elements at all. Moreover, 97% of the mining operations are performed in China, hence representing a major Damocles' Sword for the rest of the world’s economy.

Our objective is on one hand to develop the fundamental understanding involved in the process’ complex fluids (both experimental and theoretical) and on second hand to use it to develop a new, cost effective and environmentally friendly REE recycling process. We will achieve this:

  1. by enabling, for the first time ever, the fast measurement of free energy of mass transfer between complex fluids; hence it will now be possible to explore and understand an extensive number of process formulations and phase diagrams (just one such study usually takes years but will then be performed in a matter of days),
  2. by developing predictive models of ion separation including the effect of long-range interactions between metal cations and micelles,
  3. by using the experimental results and prediction tools developed, we will design an advanced and environmentally friendly process formulations and pilot plant,
  4. by enhancing the extraction kinetics and selectivity, by implementing a new, innovative and selective triggering cation exchange process step (ca. the exchange kinetics of a cation will be enhanced).

This will represent a major breakthrough in the field of transfer methods between complex fluids.

An expected direct consequence of REE-CYCLE will be that acid waste volumes and other harmful process wastes will be reduced by one to two orders of magnitude. This will bring REE recycling and mining environmental impact to levels acceptable for the world as well as greatly reduce process running costs. Hence, industrial processing plant will be able to re-open in Europe.

Furthermore, this new understanding of mechanisms involved in selective ion transfer should be applicable to respond to other unresolved problems such as heavy metals, hormones, or drug contamination in drinkable water as well as open new recycling possibilities and pave the way to economic recovery of metals from a very rapidly growing "mine", i.e. the diverse metal containing "wastes" generated by used Li-ion batteries, super-capacitors, wind turbines, supported catalysts and fuel cells.