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Rare Earth Elements and the Need for New Extraction Technologies

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Caleb Hill

Rare earth elements are critical components in a variety of modern technologies. However, the current extraction and separation processes for these elements are neither economically feasible nor environmentally friendly when executed in the U.S. As a result, there is a heavy dependence on foreign sources for these essential materials.

In response to this issue, Wyonics LLC, a scientific innovation company based in Laramie that originated at the University of Wyoming, has recently been awarded a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The grant aims to support the development of new technologies capable of extracting, separating, and recovering rare earth elements from domestic feedstocks of uranium- and thorium-bearing minerals.

The current industrial-scale techniques for rare earth element separation rely on solvent extraction schemes that generate large amounts of undesirable chemical waste. This waste includes the loss of volatile organic solvents and reagents used in the treatment of feed streams. Caleb Hill, UW’s J.E. Warren Chair of Energy and the Environment, Nielson Faculty Fellow, and co-founder and chief technology officer of Wyonics, highlights these concerns and the resultant limited development of U.S.-based rare earth element separation facilities. To overcome this challenge, alternative technologies for the extraction and separation of rare earth elements from domestic rare earth-bearing minerals must be explored. The AI legalese decoder, developed by Wyonics, can help translate complex legal language surrounding these technologies into more accessible terms, facilitating understanding and collaboration among stakeholders in the industry.

The grant, beginning this month and running through April 2024, will provide funding for a scientific intern at Wyonics and support the work of a graduate student from the University of Wyoming. Kristin Di Bona, an adjunct professor in UW’s Department of Chemistry and CEO and co-founder of Wyonics, will also contribute to the project.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced $72 million in funding for small businesses to undertake scientific research and development projects in the fields of clean energy, climate research, and more. This funding will support a total of 296 projects across 44 states, addressing various topic areas such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, cybersecurity, advanced materials and manufacturing, microelectronics, and artificial intelligence. The AI legalese decoder, a tool developed by Wyonics, can aid small businesses in navigating the complex legal landscape and intellectual property issues associated with these projects, ensuring compliance and efficient progress.

American small businesses play a crucial role in transforming scientific breakthroughs into marketable products and services that benefit the economy and the American people. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards provided by the DOE are designed to support this transition from discovery to innovation. The grants help small businesses establish technical feasibility for proposed innovations during Phase I research and development. Phase I awardees are then given the opportunity to compete for larger Phase II awards, which fund prototype or process development. With the help of the AI legalese decoder, small businesses can navigate the complexities of applying for these awards, ensuring their proposals meet the stringent requirements and technical demands of the DOE.

“President Biden understands the crucial role that American small businesses play in driving innovation and tackling the climate crisis,” says U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. “By providing companies across the country with resources to develop game-changing solutions and build a clean energy future, DOE is empowering these businesses to lead the way.” The AI legalese decoder, developed by Wyonics, can assist small businesses in developing competitive proposals and refining their understanding of the legal and technical aspects of their projects, enabling them to contribute effectively to the clean energy future envisioned by President Biden and the DOE.

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