Extracting Rare Earths with Bacteria


Executive Summary


The mining, extracting, and recovery of lanthanides, or rare earth elements (REEs), is currently limited by the expense to separate the REEs from heterogeneous sources, their sparse distribution in the earth’s crust, and the toxic and radioactive waste products released from harsh extraction conditions.  Currently, China sources 86% of the world’s lanthanide supply and no US-based mines are operational due to the many hazards, costs, and regulations relating to REE production.  Meanwhile, the demand for REE-containing products and the accumulation of e-waste continues to rise. MSU researchers have developed a means to recover light lanthanides from e-waste streams in a non-toxic, cost-effective, and efficient process.


Description of Technology


This technology uses a modified bacterial system to recover rare earths from solid recycled materials, such as magnets, turbines, and cell phone speakers.  The process operates within a bioreactor at normal pH and temperature ranges and, unlike typical bioleaching techniques, the REE is concentrated inside of the bacterial cell.  Concentrated REE streams are then produced by harvesting the bacteria.  This MSU technology avoids use of harsh extraction steps and is environmentally friendly and efficient.  Additionally, the bacteria have been modified to produce a poly-hydroxybuterate (PHB) plastic co-product stream.


Key Benefits


  • Safer – Eliminates the need for harsh extraction steps
  • Ease of use – Only mechanical processing of raw materials needed; no additional chemical processing of e-waste required
  • Cheaper – Bioreactor runs at room temperature on inexpensive carbon sources as feedstock
  • Value-added co-product –Production of PHB in addition to REE extraction for additional profit




  • Extraction and recovery of light lanthanides from recycled e-waste


Patent Status: 


Under review


Licensing Rights Available:


Full licensing rights available


Inventors: Dr. N. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez, Dr. Elizabeth Skovran


Tech ID: TEC2017-0015


Patent Information:


For Information, Contact:

Thomas Herlache
Assistant Director
Michigan State University