Extraction and Separation of Critical Metals

Advancing Sustainability through the Extraction and Separation of Critical Metals: Shaping the Future of Metal Recycling and Urban Mining

Critical raw materials, including several metals, are at the heart of our modern economy due to their integral role in various industries. They also present a significant supply risk due to their relative scarcity and the challenges associated with their extraction and refinement. For instance, rare earth metals, despite their global presence, seldom accumulate in concentrations viable for economic mining. Yet, their use is ubiquitous in numerous applications – from electronics, displays, and hybrid car magnets to wind turbines, superconductors, batteries, and catalysts. Many of these critical metals are key components for the energy transition, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, platinum, palladium, neodymium, and dysprosium.

Regrettably, the current recycling rates for many of these critical metals are low. Traditional separation processes often involve the use of strong acids, harsh conditions, and volatile solvents, which pose significant environmental and safety concerns. There is a growing need for more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives.

This is where the potential of ionic liquids comes into play. These compounds, characterized by their low volatility, offer a greener alternative to conventional solvents for the extraction, separation, and processing of rare and high-tech metals. Our research is focused on the exploration and evaluation of novel functionalized ionic liquids as environmentally benign media for metal separation.

We envisage a future where we efficiently conduct “urban mining” – extracting valuable metals from electronic scrap and other industrial waste streams. Our goal is not only to advance the science of chemical metallurgy but also to contribute to a circular economy, where waste is minimized, and resources are effectively utilized, promoting sustainable industrial practices for a greener future.

A cornerstone of our research lies in the investigation of the speciation of hydrometallurgical processes. By gaining a deeper understanding of these critical parameters, we aim to optimize the extraction and separation techniques we employ. This knowledge also serves as a fundamental basis for the development of our low-energy, hydrometallurgical methodologies, thereby aiming for circularity.

In our vision towards the circularity of the hydrometallurgical process we see a future where the entire lifecycle of metals – from extraction and use to eventual recycling – is managed in a way that minimizes energy consumption and environmental impact. By employing strategies such as urban mining and leveraging innovative, green solvents, we aim to create a truly sustainable, closed-loop system for the handling of critical metals.

Mixer-settler unit for the separation of metals.

Through this approach, we are not only working towards more sustainable and efficient metallurgical processes, but we are also contributing to the broader goal of a circular economy. This is a future where resource waste is minimized, and the lifecycle of materials is maximized, ultimately leading to more sustainable industrial practices and a greener future.

  1. A. Vicente; A. Mlonka; H. Q. N. Gunaratne; M. Swadzba-Kwasny; P. Nockemann: Phosphine oxide functionalised imidazolium ionic liquids as tuneable ligands for lanthanide complexation.Chemical Communications 2012, 48, 6115-6117.
  2. Nockemann; R. Van Deun; B. Thijs; D. Huys; E. Vanecht; K. Van Hecke; L. Van Meervelt; K. Binnemans: Uranyl Complexes of Carboxyl-Functionalized Ionic Liquids.Inorganic Chemistry, 2010, 49, 3351-3360.
  3. Nockemann; B. Thijs; S. Pittois; J. Thoen; C. Glorieux; K. Van Hecke; L. Van Meervelt; B. Kirchner; K. Binnemans: Task-specific ionic liquid for solubilizing metal oxides.Journal of Physical Chemistry B, 2006, 110, 20978-20992.