Energy funds study that could lead to new industry for Florida

China has been the world’s main supplier of rare earth elements needed to produce computers, solar panels, smartphones and electric cars. But now a new study may help position Florida to become a U.S. supplier.

The Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland has been awarded a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study how rare earth elements can be recovered, separated and purified during phosphate processing.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce the United States dependence on foreign sources of these critical materials,” says Dr. Jim Mennie, the institute’s Business Director.

The DOE funds will be split with institute partners at Miami’s Florida International University, which will do analysis and evaluate product purity, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a DOE lab in Richland, WA, which will extract and purify the elements. 

The study is expected to take a year to complete.

While there are 17 rare earth elements, Florida phosphate processing could supply at least six of the most critical ones for use with green energy and traditional industries, including defense, satellites, petroleum, and lighting.

Supplies would come from Polk, Manatee, Hardee, and DeSoto counties in West Central Florida as well as North Florida.

“Our challenge is to make the process economical,” explains Dr. Patrick Zhang, the grant’s principal investigator, who serves as the institute’s research director of phosphate beneficiation and mining. “Our concentration is low [as compared to ore].”

This study, which involves lab testing, will focus on sludge, a byproduct from phosphoric acid manufacturing.

It is being supplied by Tampa’s Mosaic Co., which has been supportive of the institute’s endeavor to recover REE. That effort dates back nine years to the founding of the Critical Materials Institute, an energy innovation hub that includes the university as a member.

After this study is completed, Florida Polytechnic is expecting to seek funding from a $4.1 million pot for a three-year second phase. It would then focus on the mechanics of creating the REE industry in Florida and the economics involved in recovering the elements, Dr. Mennie says.

One of the REE industry’s challenges is dealing with price manipulations by major producers, who can make it too costly for competing mining operations. By looking at different sources, the country can help mitigate some of those price manipulations, Dr. Mennie says. 

Learn more about rare earth elements.
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune