Greeshma Gadikota, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, will play a major role in a federal grant that will recover green-energy critical metals during mining, while converting remnant magnesium and calcium content into solid carbonates.

Cornell to help boost US supply of critical energy minerals

A Cornell professor will play a major role in a new federally funded project to increase the domestic supply of critical minerals needed to boost green energy.

Greeshma Gadikota, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in Cornell Engineering, and the Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow, will receive $650,000 of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) $2.4 million grant from the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency.

She’ll use these funds to develop ways to simultaneously recover green-energy critical metals during mining, while converting remnant magnesium and calcium content into solid carbonates using supercritical carbon dioxide from anthropogenic sources.

Critical minerals such as copper, cobalt, lithium and nickel are essential to the development of wind turbines, smart electronics and improves electric cars, but the minerals must still be mined.

“Energy critical metals are mined all over the world, leaving the U.S. quite vulnerable,” said Gadikota, who is also a faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. “This research is all about decarbonizing the mining industry and developing an independent, domestic supply chain of these critical metals. It’s important for U.S. manufacturing, green energy, national security, and competitiveness.”

Currently, the U.S. domestic mineral supply is insufficient to implement the current energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy sources, according to the ARPA-E’s Mining Innovations for Negative Emissions Resources (MINER) program.

The lack of domestic supply poses a significant risk to the energy supply chain, from renewable power generation, electricity transmission to electric vehicles, the agency said.

Mining technology innovation is needed to relieve the demand, economic burdens and national security worries for these energy-critical minerals – and place mining for these materials on a sustainable economic path, according to Gadikota.

The federal project called “Supercritical CO2-Based Mining for Carbon-Negative Critical Mineral Recovery” – with PNNL serving as the scientific lead – is expected increase the U.S. critical mineral supply by injecting supercritical carbon dioxide to mine mafic-ultramafic ores (which have about 50% silica content.) The goal is to create a carbon-negative path, reduce the energy cost of separating the valuable part of the ore by 63%, and mineralize the carbon dioxide leftover from the critical mineral extracted, according to the federal lab.

“As we mine for critical metals needed for energy, there is a lot of calcium and magnesium that comes along with nickel, chromium and copper,” Gadikota said. “We want to separate the critical metals and mineralize the others into solid carbonates for permanent storage – to help mining companies improve their carbon dioxide footprint and help them with their core business, which is metal recovery.”

Stillwater Critical Minerals, one of Gadikota’s industrial collaborators, is keen to integrate energy critical mining with carbon management technologies such as those developed through this research effort.

Gadikota said that her part of this work will build on earlier research funded two years ago by the Cornell Atkinson. She serves as the principal investigator in a project that involves recovering energy critical metals and using calcium and magnesium for carbon removal in agricultural environments. This Atkinson-funded project has technical similarities that can be transferred to the mining world.

In turn, this research aligns with Cornell’s 2030 Project initiative – which is bringing faculty from different subjects to solve climate change problems – announced last spring.

“We’re all leveraging our expertise across disciplines across academia, national labs, and industries in the spirit of the 2030 project,” Gadikota said. “The silos are falling. We’re assembling scientifically sound, tangible solutions that can be readily commercialized. This project is a great example of how transformative collaborations can solve our warming climate problem while meeting our rising need for resources.”

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Jeff Tyson