Superfund Research Program
Rhamnolipid-Based Remediation Technologies for Uranium and Rare Earth Element Contamination
Project Leader: Chett Boxley
Grant Number: R44ES031897
Funding Period: Phase II: May 2020 - April 2023
Uranium mining in the southwest U.S. has left thousands of legacy mining sites with uranium-contaminated soils. These soils are polluting adjacent water and land resources that, in turn, pose serious threats to human and environmental health. On the Navajo Nation alone, there are over 500 abandoned uranium mining sites and 12.8 percent of tested water sources exceed national drinking water standards. Uranium is also a challenge for modern mining operations as it is often present as a contaminant in mineral processing activities targeting other metals. In addition to uranium, rare earth elements (REE) are also often found as contaminants in coal and some hard-rock mining operations. Due to volatile international markets and Chinese domination of market supply, there is interest in developing alternative REE sources domestically due to the importance of REE to consumer electronics, renewable energy technologies, and national defense. Despite expressed need from the mining industry and federal regulators, technology that is both inexpensive and specific to uranium and REE is lacking.
GlycoSurf has demonstrated two technologies capable of the selective removal of uranium and REE from complex mining solutions. The first is an ion flotation process wherein GlycoSurf’s propriety surfactants complex with target metals in aerated treatment solutions. Metals are separated from the bulk solutions as the metal-surfactant complex attaches to air bubbles rising to the solution surface for collection as a metal-concentrate foam. The second technology is an adsorbent material generated by functionalizing solid media with GlycoSurf’s proprietary surfactants.
In this project, GlycoSurf’s objective is to demonstrate the commercial potential of these technologies for large water treatment applications by up-scaling reactor size, developing treatment processes for continuous flow operations and testing, and synthesizing more cost-effective glycolipids.
With the University of Arizona and Wayne State University as research partners, GlycoSurf will accomplish this project through four aims. Currently, ion flotation has successfully been demonstrated in small-volume batch operation. The aims of the project are to:
- Develop and up-scale a continuous ion flotation process using real-world metalliferous solutions supplied by BHP mining company and the U.S. Department of Energy.
- Focus on up-scaling production of rhamnolipid-functionalized adsorbent materials and developing a treatment process that will be challenged using real-world mining solutions.
- Reduce materials costs of GlycoSurf surfactants through streamlining the synthesis process, use of alternate starting materials, and increasing the scale of production to realize economy-of-scale savings.
- Examine the economic feasibility and commercial potential of technology developments in this Phase II project using a techno-economic approach.
Contamination of soil and water by uranium and other metals as the result of current and legacy mining operations is a widespread problem that poses serious risks to human and ecosystem health. The team is using green environmentally-friendly glycolipid surfactants for the recovery of toxic and precious metals, including uranium and REE, from mining-impacted waters.Successful application of these technologies to contaminated waters will allow safe reuse of the cleaned water and concentrate contaminating metals for responsible disposal or economically-beneficial use.