Bioleaching of rare earth elements from waste phosphors and cracking catalysts

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Microbial cultures were evaluated for organic acid production and their potential utility for leaching of rare earth elements (REE) from retorted phosphor powder (RPP) and spent fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) catalyst. Two bacterial and one fungal strain were isolated from environmental and industrial materials known to contain REE and compared to the industrially important bacterium Gluconobacter oxydans. Gluconic acid was the predominant organic acid product identified in all of the cultures. Maximum REE leaching (49% of the total REE) from the FCC material was observed using cell-free culture supernatants of G. oxydans, with preferential recovery of lanthanum over cerium. The phosphor powder was more difficult to leach; only about 2% of the total REE was leached with G. oxydans. Leaching experiments with the RPP material indicated that the extent of REE solubilization was similar whether whole cell cultures or cell-free supernatants were used. Abiotic control experiments showed that increasing gluconic acid concentrations increased leaching efficiency; for example, total REE leaching from FCC catalyst increased from 24% to 45% when gluconic acid was increased from 10 mM to 90 mM. However, G. oxydans cell-free culture supernatants containing 10–15 mM gluconic acid were more effective than abiotically prepared leaching solutions with higher gluconic acid concentrations, suggesting that other exudate components were important too. Our results indicate that microorganisms producing gluconic and other organic acids can induce effective leaching of REE from waste materials, and that increasing organic acid production will improve recovery.




Reed, D. W., Fujita, Y., Daubaras, D. L., Jiao, Y., & Thompson, V. S. (2016). Bioleaching of rare earth elements from waste phosphors and cracking catalysts. Hydrometallurgy, 166, 34–40.

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