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Geologists solve puzzle that could predict valuable rare earth element deposits

Geologists solve puzzle that could predict valuable rare earth element deposits
Pioneering new research has helped geologists solve a long-standing puzzle that could help pinpoint new, untapped concentrations of some the most valuable rare earth deposits. Credit: Michael Anenburg, ANU.

Pioneering new research has helped geologists solve a long-standing puzzle that could help pinpoint new, untapped concentrations of some the most valuable rare earth deposits.


A team of geologists, led by Professor Frances Wall from the Camborne School of Mines, have discovered a new hypothesis to predict where rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium could be found.

The elements are among the most sought after, because they are an essential part of digital and clean energy manufacturing, including magnets in large wind turbines and electric cars motors.

For the new research, scientists conducted a series of experiments that showed sodium and potassium—rather than chlorine or fluorine as previously thought—were the key ingredients for making these rare earth elements soluble.

This is crucial as it determines whether they crystalise—making them fit for extraction—or stayed dissolved in fluids.

The experiments could therefore allow geologists to make better predictions about where the best concentrations of neodymium and dysprosium are likely to be found.

The results are published in the journal, Science Advances on Friday, October 9th 2020.

University of Exeter researchers, through the ‘SoS RARE’ project, have previously studied many natural examples of the roots of very unusual extinct carbonatite volcanoes, where the world’s best rare earth deposits occur, in order to try and identify potential deposits of the rare earth minerals.

However, in order to gain a greater insight into their results, they invited Michael Anenburg to join the team to carry out experiments at the Australian National University (ANU).

He simulated the crystallisation of molten carbonate magma to find out which elements would be concentrated in the hot waters left over from the crystallisation process.

It showed that sodium and potassium make the rare earths soluble in solution. Without sodium and potassium, rare earth minerals precipitate in the carbonatite itself. With sodium, intermediate minerals like burbankite form and are then replaced. With potassium, dysprosium is more soluble than neodymium and carried out to the surrounding rocks.

Professor Frances Wall, leader of the SoS RARE project said: “This is an elegant solution that helps us understand better where ‘heavy’ rare earths like dysprosium and ‘light’ rare earths like neodymium’ may be concentrated in and around carbonatite intrusions. We were always looking for evidence of chloride-bearing solutions but failing to find it. These results give us new ideas.”

Michael Anenburg , a Postdoctoral Fellow at ANU said: “My tiny experimental capsules revealed minerals that nature typically hides from us. It was a surprise how well they explain what we see in natural rocks and ore deposits.”

“Rare earth element mobility in and around carbonatites controlled by sodium, potassium, and silica” is published in Science Advances on Friday, October 9th 2020.


New sources for rare metals vital in modern technology


More information:
“Rare earth element mobility in and around carbonatites controlled by sodium, potassium, and

Washington coach Jimmy Lake’s College Football Playoff plan would solve one tricky Pac-12 problem

Jimmy Lake has a plan for a more perfect playoff.

It’s a six-team field, and the seeding is simple: All Power Five conference champions are automatic entrants in the field, with the College Football Playoff committee ranking them using the same criteria it currently employs. The sixth and final spot goes to a “wild card” — whether an independent (like Notre Dame in 2018), a Group of Five champion (like undefeated and subsequently snubbed Central Florida in 2017) or a second-place finisher in a Power Five conference (like Alabama in 2017).

In the first of three rounds, the top two seeds receive a bye and the winners of a 3-6 and 4-5 match up advance to the semifinals. Then, same as the existing format, the final four teams play for a spot in the title game.

Of course, the JLP (Jimmy Lake Plan) would essentially solve one prickly problem — a Pac-12 program has not been selected for the College Football Playoff since Washington in 2016. It would also put significantly less pressure on the committee, with the foremost responsibility being ranking the conference champions and selecting a single wild card.

“I think that way you take all the subjectivity out of it, all the politics, the East Coast (bias), all of that,” Lake, the Huskies’ first-year head coach, said in a Pac-12 coaches media webinar Wednesday. “Let the champions move on. Let the teams play, and we’ll see who the best team is at the end of the year.”

Lake is so passionate about the JLP, in fact, that he and his oldest son — Jimmy Jr. — recently reseeded every playoff since the CFP came into existence in 2014, using their system. (The coronavirus pandemic, without a doubt, has provided time for passion projects.) Lake declared Wednesday that fans and media “would drool over this schedule.”

And when it comes to UW fans, he’s probably right. In 2018, rather than meeting Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the Pac-12 champion Huskies would have matched up against undefeated Notre Dame in the opening round of the CFP.

“I know our fans would have loved to see that match up,” Lake said.

That’s certainly a safe assumption. But don’t expect the JLP to receive widespread support across college football. If, say, an SEC or Big Ten fan or administrator believes there are two (or three, or four) teams from their conferences that are better than the Pac-12 champion — as is the popular perception, right or wrong — then a permanent Pac-12 representative would theoretically steal a spot from a more deserving squad.

And even UCF, an undefeated Group of Five champion, still would not have cracked the six-team JLP field in 2017.

Lake, unsurprisingly (and perhaps correctly), believes the Pac-12’s best can compete with anyone in the country.

And the JLP would give the Pac-12 champion an annual opportunity to prove it.

“I have not shared this much with my peers, but I definitely have shared it internally —