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Johnson Matthey Technol. Rev., 2021, 65, (1), 151


BIORECOVER: New Bio-based Technologies for Recapture of Critical Raw Materials

Development of an innovative, sustainable and safe process from primary and secondary sources

  • Annette Alcasabas

  • Johnson Matthey, 260 Cambridge Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge, CB4 0WE, UK
  • Felicity Massingberd-Mundy, Barbara Breeze
  • Johnson Matthey, Blounts Court, Sonning Common, Reading, RG4 9NH, UK
  • Maite Ruiz Pérez, Cristina Martínez García
  • Fundación Centro Tecnológico de Investigación Multisectorial (CETIM), Parque Empresarial de Alvedro, calle H, 20, 15180 Culleredo, A Coruña, Spain

  • Email:

Article Synopsis

BIORECOVER brings together diverse expertise with the goal of developing a new sustainable and safe process, essentially based on biotechnology, for selective extraction of critical raw materials (CRMs), rare earth elements (REE), magnesium and platinum group metals (pgms). The four-year European Union (EU) H2020 project involves 14 international partners from mining, microbiology, chemistry, engineering, metallurgy, sustainable process development, as well as CRM end-users. Starting from relevant unexploited secondary and primary sources of CRMs, BIORECOVER will develop and integrate three stages for CRM extraction: (a) removal of major impurities present in raw materials; (b) mobilisation of CRMs through use of microorganisms; and (c) development of specific technologies for recovering metals with high selectivity and purity that meet the quality requirements for reuse. Downstream processes will be developed and recovered metals will be assessed by end-users. Modelling and integration of the modular stages and economic and environmental assessment will be done to develop the most effective and sustainable process. This short feature describes the aims and approach, project technologies and intended outputs of the BIORECOVER project.


Nowadays, the EU depends on imports to supply CRMs: materials established by the European Commission as raw materials of great importance for industry and the EU economy, with high risk associated with their supply and availability in the market.

Examples of CRM are the REE (scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium and neodymium), magnesium and pgms (platinum, palladium, ruthenium, rhodium and iridium). The largest use of the 8350 tonnes of REE is for catalysts (42%) followed by glass additives and over 90% of these are imported from China (13). In the same way, 85% of the 130,000 tonnes of magnesium annually consumed are imported from China (3, 4); the main uses being as magnesium casting alloys for transportation applications and aluminium alloys for packaging, transportation and construction (3). The EU supply of platinum is dominated by South Africa with around 70% of supply from the country alone (3, 5). The pgms are primarily used in the production of catalysts for automotive and chemical industries and in electronic applications. With this strong reliance on CRM from outside the EU the development of innovative extraction processes is essential to extensively exploit raw material sources, primary and secondary, sourced within the EU.

In this context, the BIORECOVER project aims to reduce the gap between the European supply and demand for CRM (REE, magnesium and pgm) by providing innovative, flexible and versatile alternative processes based on modular and mainly bio-based technologies. The scientific advances in the field of biotechnology (bacteria, microalgae, fungi, proteins) will allow the exploitation of CRM inaccessible by conventional extraction methods.


Project Aims and Approach

The BIORECOVER project aims to produce a suite of versatile and flexible recovery processes applicable in several conditions (pH, mineral complex, raw materials), which obtain high recovery yields (≥90%), selectivity (>95%) and purity (≥99%) and delivers both environmental sustainability and cost-efficiency in safe conditions. The BIORECOVER strategy is based on research, integration and optimisation of the following stages at laboratory scale: pretreatment to remove major impurities in the raw materials, mobilisation of the target CRM into a bioleachate and recovery of metals with high selectivity and purity. Selection and integration of the best technologies will be carried out (one route for each type of raw material), and the selected processes will be optimised and validated, producing samples for end-user testing assuring the product quality requirements for their reuse in different applications (Figure 1).

Fig. 1

The flow-scheme of BIORECOVER

The flow-scheme of BIORECOVER

To increase the efficiency and the sustainability of the BIORECOVER processes, valorisation of the byproducts and wastes generated will be studied towards a zero liquid discharge process. These BIORECOVER aims will be supported by applying tools such as interactive life cycle analysis and life cycle costing. Additionally, modelling of the overall process will be performed to develop a decision-making framework to maximise the performance. To obtain a competitive, secure, sustainable and publicly acceptable process, the project will be supported by socio-economic and health and safety analyses.

To achieve these goals, the BIORECOVER project has brought together an interdisciplinary consortium involving partners across the whole value chain from suppliers, scientific experts to the CRM end users, as well as two small-to-medium enterprises specialised in dissemination, communication, exploitation and social issues (Table I).

Table I

BIORECOVER Consortium Description

Partner Country Type of entitya Role
Mytilineos Anonimi Etairia-Omilos Epicheiriseon (MYTILINEOS) Greece LE Raw materials characterisation and supply
Magnesitas de Navarra (MAGNA) Spain LE Raw materials characterisation and supply; end-users
University of Witwatersrand (UWITS) South Africa RTO Raw materials characterisation and supply; recovery process research
Johnson Matthey UK LE Raw materials characterisation and supply; recovery process research; end-users
University of Copenhagen (UCPH) Denmark RTO Recovery process research
University of Coimbra (UC) Portugal RTO Recovery process research
Linnaeus University (LNU) Sweden RTO Recovery process research
Fundación Centro Tecnológico de Investigación Multisectorial (CETIM). Coordinator Spain RTO Recovery process research; dissemination, communication, exploitation & environmental and social issues
University of Cape Town’s Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER) South Africa RTO Recovery process research
Técnicas Reunidas (TR) Spain LE Recovery process research
Algaenergy Spain SME Recovery process research
Francisco Albero (FAE) Spain LE End-users
Vertech France SME Dissemination, communication, exploitation & environmental and social issues
LGI France SME Dissemination, communication, exploitation & environmental and social issues

a Research and technical organisation (RTO), small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), large enterprise (LE)

Supply of Raw Materials

MYTILINEOS SA, Metallurgy Business Unit (formerly known as Aluminium of Greece) is providing a REE-containing bauxite residue (BR) for the project. BR is the insoluble material generated during the extraction of alumina from bauxite ore using the Bayer process. When bauxite ore is treated with caustic soda, the aluminium hydroxides and oxides contained within are solubilised, leaving behind other bauxite oxides (mainly iron oxides, silica and titania) to form insoluble BR. The BR is washed then filter pressed to reduce storage volume and recover the alkaline solution (6). MYTILINEOS currently recycles ~10% of this residue as an additive for cement production, however the rest is stockpiled as a waste product. BR contains low amounts of some high value REE, such as scandium and yttrium, which are not currently recovered (7). BIORECOVER aims to recover these REE and, in doing so, reduce the build-up of and extract more value from the BR waste.

Magnesium-containing feeds are being supplied by Magnesitas de Navarra (MAGNA, Spain). Magnesite (magnesium carbonate) is mined, crushed, ground and enriched. Then the carbonate is either sintered at around 1800°C to produce magnesite sinter for the steel industry or calcined at around 1300°C to produce reactive magnesium oxide, used in agriculture, livestock farming and other industrial and chemical technologies (8). The waste streams of low-grade mineral and calcination byproducts (MgW) still contain some magnesium, which is currently not recovered. The low-grade mineral is deposited in mining dumps, while the calcination byproducts are used in different industrial and environmental applications due to their small particle size and basifying characteristics.

Johnson Matthey (UK) is supplying low-grade residues from its secondary pgm refineries. The feed intake is a mix of end-of-life pgm products and process residues, from spent catalysts to electronics and jewellery scrap. There are four main stages in the refinery process. In the smelting step, pgm‐containing bullions are produced, alongside a non-metallic stream which goes to second uses such as aggregates. The pgm-containing bullions then undergo chemical leaching processes to produce pgm solutions. In chemical separations, the pgm solutions are converted into separate pgm salts or high purity fine metal powder. These are then transformed into application-ready products, such as catalytic converters, which are fed back into the refinery at end-of-life (9). During the refining stages, lost material containing low levels of pgm is recovered and fed back into the smelting stage. This recovery is a highly energy intensive process relative to the low levels of pgm present and so recovering the precious metal through a bioprocess would be more sustainable and lower cost.

The final raw material is pgm-containing low grade material and concentrates which the University of the Witwatersrand (UWITS, South Africa) is sourcing from Anglo American Platinum in South Africa.

The BIORECOVER Technologies

Biometallurgy is a proven green and low-cost technology for the exploitation of metals through the application of different biocatalysts (microorganisms and metabolites) (10). These biocatalysts interact with metals by selectively concentrating or mobilising them. One crucial limitation of biometallurgy is the long retention times that are currently required. To address this, BIORECOVER will identify and develop new biocatalysts with improved performance. This approach, using microorganisms indigenous to mining and CRM storage sites, will assure fewer ecological distortions and less time consumption for adaptation. In terms of leaching efficiency, native strains usually achieve higher cell density and greater metal extraction rates than exogenous microbes. In addition, use of the following state-of-the-art technologies will facilitate the development of microbial consortia more competent for biometallurgy (11).

  • metagenomics (sequencing of genomes from environmental samples)

  • metatranscriptomics (identification of expressed transcripts)

  • proteomics (identification and quantification of proteins)

  • metabolomics (measurement of cellular metabolites)

  • interactomics (understanding cellular interactions).

Another innovative approach to improve the biomining processes is the immobilisation of microorganisms onto supports that will enable the continuous supply of nutrients without competition, increase biomass, give protection from environmental stress and provide more control at a lower cost (12).

The first two biological steps in CRM recovery are pretreatment and CRM mobilisation. In both steps, BIORECOVER will isolate and cultivate microbial populations present in the feed. These would be expected to be naturally metal resistant and possess other valuable traits. BIORECOVER will use metagenomics and metatranscriptomics to identify and characterise these samples, as well as isolates from existing culture collections, that have the ability to remove impurities (for pretreatment) and leach CRM from samples (for CRM mobilisation).

For pretreatment, University of Copenhagen (UCPH, Denmark) and University of Coimbra (UC, Portugal) will screen microbial communities, present in either the unconditioned raw material or the UC culture collection, for the ability to remove impurities (iron, aluminium, calcium and titanium for BR; silicon, iron and calcium carbonate for MgW). For pgm‐containing material, UC will use selected mesophilic and thermophilic microbes and UWITS will isolate iron and sulfur-oxidising bacteria to test removal of copper, nickel, cobalt, zinc and iron from pgm‐containing Johnson Matthey refinery residues and Anglo American Platinum mining waste, respectively.

For CRM mobilisation, Linnaeus University (LNU, Sweden) will screen both indigenous microbial communities as well as fungal cultures known to excrete organic acids for the ability to mobilise REE in BR samples. LNU will also screen organisms in MgW for the ability to leach magnesium and in Johnson Matthey low-grade residues for the ability to leach pgm. Fundación Centro Tecnológico de Investigación Multisectorial (CETIM, Spain) will optimise CRM mobilisation conditions for microorganisms selected for BR and MgW. UWITS will sample soil around pgm deposits to isolate cyanide-producing bacteria that can mobilise pgm.

For both pretreatment and CRM mobilisation, the partners will perform further screening, testing relevant conditions such as co-cultivation for synergistic effects, and testing with different CRM concentrations to optimise activity.

In the third step, CRM recovery, BIORECOVER will develop five different sustainable technologies to bind CRM. Técnicas Reunidas (TR, Spain) will test and develop selective reusable polymeric microcapsules with ‘almost zero’ extractant consumption to recover a wide range of REE and platinum. ALGAENERGY, Spain, will cultivate and screen different microalgae species and develop microalgal-based biosorbents to recover mainly yttrium, magnesium, platinum and palladium. UC will screen planktonic cells that produce siderophores and immobilised systems to develop an adsorption process for yttrium and pgm. CETIM will screen fungi with known magnesium-binding activity to develop a biotransformation process to make magnesium nanoparticles. Johnson Matthey will design and synthesise different proteins and peptides to develop protein products that can adsorb magnesium and platinum.

For all three steps, data from all groups will be collected by University of Cape Town’s Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER, South Africa), who will develop kinetic models, that will be valuable in process optimisation. This will facilitate process improvement towards achieving a target recovery rate (>90%), selectivity (>95%) and purity (>99%).

In the second half of the project the best technology for each step will be selected, integrated into a complete process and scaled-up to 5 l bioreactors and columns. Along with the process modelling this will successfully optimise and validate the BIORECOVER strategy for the different CRM feeds. A technical, environmental and economic assessment of the selected process for each feedstock will be conducted to improve the performance and to facilitate further replicability and scaling up of the BIORECOVER technology.

Project Outputs

The CRM recovered through the BIORECOVER processes will be tested for end use by industrial project partners.

Francisco Albero SAU (FAE, Spain) will test the application of the recovered yttrium and platinum for brake pads and oxygen sensors, respectively. FAE fabricates brake pads by tape casting then sintering advanced ceramic slurries. Yttrium is added to the slurries to reduce the sintering temperature. FAE also produces oxygen sensors made of zirconia for exhaust gas monitoring. Conductive parts of the oxygen sensors are fabricated by screen-printing platinum inks on ceramic substrates.

The use of the recovered platinum, palladium and iridium for commercial catalysts will be tested by Johnson Matthey. Catalysts will be prepared and their catalytic activity will be tested on a range of reactions, including carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon oxidation, selective hydrogenation, selective nitro reductions and carbon-carbon bond forming reactions.

MAGNA will characterise the recovered magnesium nanoparticles and compare this with magnesium obtained through conventional technologies to assess their suitability for commercial applications such as agricultural fertilisers.

The dissemination of the project’s achievements to a wide range of stakeholders (policy makers, industry groups, potential markets and the academic community) will be key for the successful exploitation of the project. Diffusion actions will include conferences, seminars, workshops, scientific publications as well as engagement with other relevant projects on CRM recovery. Finally, a strategic plan to exploit the results generated during and after the end of the project will be accomplished in terms of business models and intellectual property rights strategy.



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This project has received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 821096. The authors would like to thank and acknowledge the consortium partners for their input into the preparation of this manuscript.

Supplementary Information

For more information about the BIORECOVER project please visit the website:

The Authors

Annette Alcasabas is a Lead Scientist in the Biotechnology Department of Johnson Matthey. She has a background in microbial genetics and worked in industrial synthetic biology prior to joining Johnson Matthey in 2016. At Johnson Matthey, she is responsible for the molecular biology workflow used in commercial protein production and protein engineering. Annette is also part of a team that is exploring new opportunities and applications for biotechnology.

Felicity Massingberd-Mundy is a research scientist in the Recycling and Separations Technology department at Johnson Matthey, Sonning Common, UK. She graduated with an MChem from the University of Oxford, UK, in 2019, having conducted her final year research project in the New Applications group at Johnson Matthey. Her current research focuses on CRM recycling, specifically pgm and battery materials recycling.

Barbara Breeze is a Senior Principal Scientist in the Recycling and Separations Technology department at Johnson Matthey. She has experience of new process research and development for the recovery of critical metals from the end-of-life products, with a particular focus on battery materials recycling and pgms recovery.

Maite Ruiz is a Senior Researcher in the ECO BIO technologies department at CETIM in A Coruña. She has experience of recovery processes of CRM, valuable metals and bioactives from different matrices (such as waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) and food byproducts), with a special focus on bio-based technologies.

Cristina Martínez García is the Head of the research and development (R&D) ECO BIO technologies department at CETIM. Cristina Martínez holds a PhD and Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Technology as well as a degree in Chemistry from the University of A Coruña, Spain. She has been involved in the development of several national and international R&D projects focused on the development of new technologies in the area of circular economy: resources recovery from organic and inorganic wastes such as wastewater, sludge, minerals and byproducts of animal and vegetable origin to obtain high value commercial compounds.

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