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Geologic research making waves

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Written by Ramiro Rodriguez

Posted on 26 January 2014

"I really think rare earth elements are fascinating and represent the unknown of the useful periodic table and rare earth elements will become much more important in the future" says John Bristow, a graduate student working on rare earth mineral research for the geological engineering and geology department. Bristow is currently doing independent research on the absorption of rare earth minerals by all the varieties of clays in hopes of seeing whether certain kinds of clay collect the minerals at a greater or slower rate. His research is notable because of the rarity of independent research at the Colorado School of Mines as well as the fact that his work is experimental in nature, as most research in geology here at Mines is done in economic ore bodies, hydrology, or geological engineering.

The work he is doing carries with it implications valuable to the process of extracting and processing rare earth minerals which are increasingly important for their use in the production of devices ranging from consumer electronics to catalytic converters in cars. When asked, "why clays?", Bristow responds "[I'm] interested in clays because within the realm of geology it represents the end of all things. When you have rocks that break down they find themselves in the ocean or as clays. So studying clays is very valuable from an environmental and economic perspective." The end goal is to have this type of data available for all known varieties of clay so as to optimize the extraction of rare earth minerals.

As of right now, Bristow's research is in the experimental design phase. Rather than the fieldwork commonly thought of in association with geology, he is designing an environment inside of a laboratory to test whether there are clays which absorb rare earth minerals at different rates. This allows him to have a tremendous amount of control over an environment versus field work, he however runs into the issue of having to make sure the conditions he is setting are realistic which will be checked by comparing his data with that of people working in a field environment similar to what he is synthesizing. The experiment will consist of running a rare earth mineral-enriched water through a variety of clay minerals and finding the rate at which the clays absorb the rare earth minerals. The test will be run at a variety of environmental conditions so as to see the extent of which the clay types are responsible for the absorption of the rare earth minerals so as to see whether or not a null hypothesis is true.

The null hypothesis would imply there is no relationship between clay type and absorption of rare earth minerals and that absorption is based purely on weathering environment and process.This null hypothesis is somewhat hinted at because of the relatively high amount of rare earth minerals found absorbed by kaolinite, which should not have as much absorption due to its low cation exchange capacity. As Bristow says when asked about the null hypothesis "A Null hypothesis would be both a revolutionary yet terrifying thing."
Colorado School of Mines

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