The U.S. military may be looking to bioengineered solutions to help solve its access quandary to processing rare earth elements used in defense, technology and other mission-critical military applications. The U.S. Department of Defense News (DoD News) reported the development at its 5th Annual Defense News Conference, citing a new program launched under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
A DoD spokesperson told the the department’s news outlet that DARPA has initiated a program called Environmental Microbes as a BioEngineering Resource (EMBER), aimed at securing the country’s supply chain of rare earth elements. Despite having ample domestic reserves of the elements themselves, the U.S. lacks a domestic base for safely processing these resources without chemically intensive and often environmentally toxic methods.
“From a DARPA perspective what we’re looking at are what are some of the barriers that have made it difficult for the U.S. to maintain dominance in rare earth processing,” DARPA director Stefanie Tompkins told DoD News. “One of the things we just launched…is related to bio-mining. The program is called EMBER, and that is about actually designing microbes [that] can more efficiently and at scale and in an environmentally sound way, separate out these rare earth elements from the ore in which they’re actually found.”
DoD’s reporting did not make reference to the predominant role of China in processing rare earth elements, but quoted DARPA’s Tompkins as saying the “expensive and environmentally painful processes” associated with extracting rare earth elements had caused the U.S. to “sort of back away” from these kinds of midstream activities.
Unlike previous generations of airplanes and other warcraft, which were built around mechanical technologies, Tompkins told DoD News that current and future defense operations are powered by onboard microelectronics, such as sensors, avionics and radar technologies, that are built using rare earth elements like neodynium. Tompkins said that as the microelectronics industry approaches a plateau in microchip capability, innovation in future defense technology may move completely into new materials and design structures.
The Department of Defense has taken several actions in recent years to strengthen defense supply chains around rare earth metals. In November 2020, the Department awarded contracts under Title III of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to three rare earth element producers–MP Materials, TDA Magnetics and Urban Mining Company–to strengthen domestic supply chain capabilities. In September 2020, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) increased the scope of its Rare Earth Salts Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF) to scale up the domestic production of neodymium praseodymium salts, which are commonly used in high-performance magnets and batteries.