£14m for Kent-led project to advance recycling of rare metals

Emily Collins
Old batteries in a purple light

Kent bioscientist Professor Martin Warren is set to lead a national consortia which aims to use biology to recover and recycle rare earth elements after securing funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).  

The £14 million Engineering Biology Mission Hub for Environmental Processing and Recovery of Metals (ELEMENTAL) aims to address the growing need for critical minerals and metals in clean energy technologies and promote a circular economy. 

Technologically critical metals, such as rare earth elements, cobalt, lithium and indium, pose significant challenges due to their limited availability and the environmental damage caused by their extraction. Recycling these metals is crucial for reducing the demand for primary mining and minimising environmental impacts. 

The ELEMENTAL project will tackle this problem by bringing together specialists from various UK institutions, including the University of Kent, Quadram Institute, University of East Anglia, University of Manchester, Durham University, Natural History Museum, University College London, University of Surrey and the University of York. 

The project will see Professor Warren collaborate with partners to establish an open knowledge hub which aims to enhance ongoing projects related to mineral extraction, urban mining, industrial waste, and nuclear waste by leveraging engineering biology tools and approaches. Examples include the use of microorganisms to extract metals (bioleaching) or break down contaminants in polluted water and land (bioremediation). The project will also explore the potential of phytomining, where certain plants naturally accumulate metals and rare earth elements from the soil. 

Professor Warren, Professor of Biochemistry and Royal Society Industry Fellow at Kent’s School of Biosciences, and Quadram Institute Chief Scientific Officer, said, ‘Our ELEMENTAL engineering biology mission hub focuses on potentially transformative technologies that can help us steward our precious resources and help build a circular economy. We will take targeted approaches such as bioleaching, bioremediation, and biorecovery to address metal waste, rare earth elements (REE) and radionuclide waste, and metal scarcity.’ 

Professor Ian Charles, Director of the Quadram Institute, said, ‘We are delighted to be part of this major new collaborative mission hub. Engineering biology might sound like the science of the future but our scientists are already using biological processes to develop E. coli strains that are more environmentally friendly. These are key new technologies we will need for a more sustainable world.’ 

Professor Shane Weller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Kent, said, ‘I am absolutely delighted at the success of this major collaborative funding bid to develop a mission hub focused on building a circular economy in the field of engineering biology. This is a research area of very considerable strength at the University of Kent, and this funding will help us to contribute significantly to cutting-edge research in bioleaching, bioremediation and biorecovery.’