The European Union is interested in extracting these mineral, whose origin it is both natural and derived from human activities.

Cochayuyo in Los Molinos, Los Ríos Region. Photography: Mauricio Palacios.

Richard García, El Mercurio. Worldwide, there is great economic interest in exploiting rare earth minerals, or lanthanides. These minerals are heavily employed by high-tech industries such as aerospace, telecommunications and nuclear medicine.

Lanthanides are very good conductors of electricity. Moreover, their magnetism can be “customized”. Although China currently dominates lanthanide production, both the United States and the European Union are looking for alternative sources.

With the support of the European Union, scientists from Chile and the Czech Republic investigated whether lanthanides were present in coastal algae. Rare earth minerals can be “taken up” by algae when dissolved in water and have already been detected in these plants elsewhere on the planet.

“The highest concentrations were detected in central north [Chile], likely due to the greater presence of minerals,” explains biologist Mauricio Palacios, a graduate student at the Research Center Dynamics of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL) of the Universidad Austral de Chile. “[Lanthanides] were also found in the algae of Patagonia, something we did not expect.”

Lanthanide concentrations reached up to seven milligrams per kilo, according to Franz Goecke, a European-based Chilean and lead author of a study done at the Institute of Microbiology of the Czech Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic.

Because they are found in algae at low levels, lanthanides do not have a negative effect on the plants’ biology. Indeed, the rare earth metals could bolster algal development since, in moderate doses, these minerals could promote growth.

Possible contaminant

Goecke notes that, in the long run, the goal is to find a method of extracting and reusing these minerals. “[Lanthanides] are being used in almost everything and, in the European Union, there is concern that they will become a major pollutant. In addition, [Europeans] are concerned with recycling the minerals in order to avoid losing money, and algae can be an attractive source.”

Algae can also act as a geographic indicator of inland lanthanide deposits. The question remains as to whether lanthanides are being discharged from mineral slag or are part of the waste from manufactured products.

In Europe, for example, concentrations of gadolinium have increased in rivers near hospitals. This mineral is used in magnetic resonance imaging and other technologies. Gadolinium also enters the environment through fertilizer. One of the 15 lanthanides, gadolinium is located on the periodic table between elements 57 (lanthanum) and 71 (lutetium).

“The problem with these elements,” says Goecke, “is that people consider them harmless, but a couple of studies in China have shown that they do cause environmental damage.”

Although not yet directly exploited in Chile, according to Sernageomin, the Biolantánidos project in the Biobío Region intends to open up this field.