Rare earth metals are contained within the rocks of the earth’s crust, however, they accumulate relatively rarely in commercially valuable con-centrations. In addition, their extraction often produces unwanted by-products, which can cast doubt on the profitability of projects in this field.
BRAIN and SES are therefore breaking new ground with their alternative enrichment and extraction technology. BRAIN provides its extensive “Bio-Archive” of over 30,000 organisms and those that can enrich the rare earths can be identified and isolated. This organism library is constantly being expanded and replenished with samples taken from Seltenerden Storkwitz AG’s exploration work, as well as other sample sources.
The first promising joint results achieved have led the parties involved to extend the strategic partnership, which now aims to further refine and scale the previously developed technology. With the new biological meth-od, the development of alternative rare earth sources appears to be pos-sible. The subsequent research project will be funded in part by the Ger-man Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), until a Bio-Mining pilot plant is achieved. The existing technology for the rare earth element scandium will shortly be available for widespread industrial use.
Dr. Jörg Reichert, Managing Director of SES AG states, “We are delighted with the success of this project. In our view, working with BRAIN has par-ticular potential for innovation as the biotechnological mining of metals is a first in the field of rare earths. It is also possible that rare earth extraction can be used in other ways, for example to extract scandium from industri-al waste and waste water. We therefore look forward to continuing our work with BRAIN.”
“In Seltenerden Storkwitz AG, we have found a strategic partner who adopts innovative approaches and pioneers sustainable extraction and processing of ore deposits alongside us. This has led us to also buy shares in the company,” explains Dr. Holger Zinke, CEO of BRAIN AG. “This partnership may seem unusual at first glance but it in fact only emphasises the progression of the biologisation of industries and the growing impor-tance of the bioeconomy.”
“Over the course of the partnership so far, we have identified and charac-terised a variety of microorganisms that can extract specific rare earth metals directly from the aqueous solution using established mining pro-cesses. Even if the initial concentration of metals in the ores is very low, we are now able to use our technology to enrich the metals and make them economically viable,” says Dr. Guido Meurer, Unit Head Microbial Production and member of the executive board at BRAIN, on the achievement of these milestones.
The rare earth metals are vital for many high-technology products as there are hardly any raw material substitutes. They are particularly significant in the implementation of the energy transition - from essential fuel cells in energy-saving bulbs, to high performance magnets for electric motors and wind turbines. However, the majority of SEE metals currently come from China, which has monopolised this raw material group over the past 30 years, and thus determines the price and availability. Both the German Federal Government and the EU Commission classify rare earths as stra-tegically important elements, whose security of supply is a geopolitical risk. Even within the German economy, the supply of rare earths is considered to be critical.
BRAIN AG is an industrial “white” biotech company which discovers and develops novel bioactive natural compounds and proprietary enzymes for its partners and customers in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, as well as the food and cosmetics industries. With its unique approach to the discovery and production of new biological compounds and biocatalysts, the company achieves creative solutions by harnessing nature’s untapped biodiversity. Its success is built on its proprietary BioArchive comprising millions of genes, proteins and metabolic pathways from microbial isolates and metagenome libraries. Since its foundation in 1993, BRAIN has entered into over 80 strategic partnerships and alliances with nearly all the relevant companies within the chemical industry, for example BASF, Ciba, Clariant, Evonik, DSM, Genencor, Henkel, Nutrinova, RWE, Sandoz, Schering, Südzucker and Symrise, to name but a few. BRAIN currently employs 114 highly skilled people.
For their groundbreaking industrial biotechnology activities for a sustainable „biologisation of the chemical industry“ using nature`s toolbox for industrial processes, BRAIN and its CEO Dr. Holger Zinke received the “Deutschen Umweltpreis 2008” of the “Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt”, DBU.
About Seltenerden Storkwitz AG
The long-term objective of Seltenerden Storkwitz AG is to play a key role in the strategic supply of raw materials in Germany. The 17 rare earth elements, particularly metals, are used mainly in the fields of high-technology and environmental technology, therefore making them a highly critical raw material for both German and foreign industry. The development of raw material sources and the increase in rare earth production are the focus of the company’s activities. Another important area of the company’s activities is the development of new and innovative methods for the separation and production of rare earth metals.