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SBIR Phase I:A clean, biological solution to sustainable energy’s rare earth problem

Award Information
Agency: National Science Foundation
Branch: N/A
Contract: 2304412
Agency Tracking Number: 2304412
Amount: $275,000.00
Phase: Phase I
Program: SBIR
Solicitation Topic Code: M
Solicitation Number: NSF 22-551
Solicitation Year: 2022
Award Year: 2023
Award Start Date (Proposal Award Date): 2023-08-01
Award End Date (Contract End Date): 2024-07-31
Small Business Information
350 Duffied Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
United States
HUBZone Owned: No
Woman Owned: No
Socially and Economically Disadvantaged: No
Principal Investigator
 Alexa Schmitz
 (607) 262-5420
Business Contact
 Alexa Schmitz
Phone: (607) 262-5420
Research Institution

The broader/commercial impact of this Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project is to reduce the negative environmental impacts of rare earth element (REE) production through the development of a clean, sustainable system for REE extraction and purification using biology. Such a system would allow for affordable, low-impact REE production in the United States which, in turn, would reduce dependence on REE imports, alleviating a significant supply risk and concerns for national security. REEs are critical for manufacturing many modern electronics and sustainable energy technologies, including electric motors and wind turbine generators, solid state lighting, battery anodes, high-temperature superconductors, and high-strength lightweight alloys. Such applications are increasing demands on the global REE supply, which is predominantly controlled outside of the United States due to the cost of environmental regulations and labor. Nearly all REE production today comes from mining ore, which can cause its own environmental detriment, and will not be able to meet the rising demand for REEs. To bridge the gap between supply and demand, and attenuate the impacts of mining, REEs will be recovered from various waste and end-of-life sources, promoting a circular economy. The recovery of REEs from secondary sources would create new jobs, especially with the development of new infrastructure for the collection and pre-processing of REE-containing materials._x000D_
The output of this SBIR Phase I project is an end-to-end biological system for REE recovery that can replace the most environmentally damaging steps from source to market, including bio-extraction, selection, and separation of REEs. The use of microorganisms for each step allows for a much cleaner process, and genomic optimization for rapid customization to a variety of REE feedstocks. REE bio-extraction is done with biodegradable lixiviant produced by optimized microbial strains. Bio-selection is done with REE-specific ligands immobilized in a synthetic biological matrix. Finally, bio-separations are done through the selective sorption and desorption of different REEs to engineered bacterial membranes in columns that bind specific REEs with different affinities. Genetic customization is enabled through comprehensive identification of the genetic elements underlying a trait of interest, followed by incorporation of genetic engineering for optimization of the overall commercial process. In Phase I of the project, efforts are focused on the identification of the variables that most contribute to efficiency, as well as the genetic mechanisms driving those variables._x000D_
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

* Information listed above is at the time of submission. *

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