Researchers at Australia's Murdoch University have developed a new microfluidics method that could help extract high value precious metals faster than conventional approaches.
Scientists Dr Chun-Yang Yin and Dr Aleksandar Nikoloski have demonstrated the advantages of their new technique by trialling the recovery of platinum and palladium from a spent automotive catalyst leach solution.
Dr Yin said the new technique will improve processing speed and also effectively reduce plant space unlike the traditional approach.
"Traditional mineral extraction uses a time-consuming two-stage process which sees a mineral leach solution and an extractant vigorously mixed before being transferred to a settler," Dr Yin said.
The new single-stage process pumps up leach solution and extractant along two fine micro-channels embedded in a PYREX microchip, thus resulting in high surface-to-volume ratio and metal ion transfer, and leading to 99% extraction of metal in a second's time.
Commenting on this nano-level interplay, Dr. Yin said, "This really could transform the purification technology for platinum group metals and the niche minerals industry".
Both researchers noted that the recovery of metals such as platinum and palladium has become crucial, both economically and environmentally, due to their increasing cost.
After demonstrating the proof-of-concept through the findings, the duo now plans to partner with industry to scale up the new approach.
The technique is also claimed to help in purifying rare earth elements, which are key commodities for 'green' technologies including hybrid cars and novel batteries.
Dr. Yin said the method will help Australian researchers and companies get a strong foothold in microfluidics, which is an emerging area of science.
"Up until now, microfluidics has been used primarily in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, and has never been applied to industrial mineral processing. We're one of only a very few groups in the world working in this area."
Image: A new extraction technique speeds up precious metal recovery. Photo: Courtesy of Murdoch University.