A chemical engineering researcher leads an Arkansas rare earth metals project


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Audie Key Thompson

A team of researchers led by Assistant Professor Audie Key Thompson received a research grant to explore the development of efficient separation methods for rare earth metals in Arkansas.

The rare earth elements are not very concentrated in the rock formations where they are found. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, separation methods developed through this research could reduce the cost of extracting rare earth metals, which are of national importance for the production of clean energy products like magnets and batteries. . Rare earth elements can also be found in hard drives, smart phones, fuel cells, petroleum refining, x-ray imaging, and fiber optics.

Thompson holds the Robert E. Babcock, Sr. Professorship in Chemical Process Safety and the Environmental Fate of Chemicals. His research focuses on surface modification chemistries to achieve selective separation using functionally specified membranes and thin films.

Joining Thompson in this research are Jamie Hestekin, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Alberta, and Karthik Nayani, assistant professor. David Pollock, a master science research technician in the university’s Department of Biological Sciences, is also part of the research team.

The team will apply a range of methods to extract rare earth elements, including geochemical analysis, metal extraction and membrane separation processes. The goal of these combined methods is to separate and purify valuable materials from complex soil mixtures. Ultimately, the research team plans to develop a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to identify, recover and even recycle rare earth elements.

Rare earth metals are a family of 17 elements, according to the Arkansas Geological Survey. The 17 elements are all metals, rather than minerals or solid fuels, and only a few of the elements are actually rare. Rare earth elements are usually mixed with other geological minerals or rocks, requiring advancements in their extraction.

Sponsorship of this award by ARK Mineral Resources is the result of a collaboration between Terra Intel LLC and the Research and Innovation Industry Seed Funding Program Division of the U of A. Terra Intel is a Colorado-based land and natural resources intelligence group. The Research and Innovation Division is a strategic university research program aimed at developing new collaborations between University of Alberta researchers and industry partners. The seed funding program focuses on proof of concept research results.

About the Department of Chemical Engineering: Chemical Engineering has been part of the University of Arkansas curriculum since 1903. Today, the Ralph E. Martin Department of Chemical Engineering has over 300 students enrolled in its undergraduate and graduate programs and is home to five Endowed Chairs and eight Endowed Chairs to support its faculty. Faculty expertise includes cell engineering, chemical process safety, advanced materials, and membrane separations. A wide range of basic and applied research is carried out in the fields of energy, health, sustainability and computational chemical engineering. The department is also home to the Chemical Hazards Research Center and is one of three national sites of the Center for Membrane Science, Engineering and Technology (MAST). The Department of Chemical Engineering is named after alumnus Ralph E. Martin (BSCh.E.’58, MSCh.E.’60) in recognition of his 2005 endowment gift.


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