Research in extraction and usage of Rare Earth Elements should become a part of regular Engineering curriculum

Due to poor focus on the research related to the extraction of 20 strategic metals that include 17 Rare Earth Elements (REE) along with Nickel, Cobalt and Lithium in the Engineering colleges of the country, India has reported no significant advancement in this vital domain. Engineering students in the country are not proactively pursuing Masters and PhD in this domain due to paucity of quality research faculty and facilities in engineering colleges. Further, due to poor spade work in the domain of REE including mining and their extraction techniques, students aren’t motivated to work in this domain.
Recently, 10 western countries led by the United States of America have formed a partnership named Minerals Security Partnership ( MSP). India is not included in this partnership as it has not undertaken any significant strides in mining and research of these 20 elements. These 11 countries would focus upon creating supply chains of minerals such as Cobalt, Nickel, Lithium, and 17 REE through mining, extraction and usage of these elements to evolve an alternative to China which has created huge processing infrastructure in rare earth minerals and has acquired mines in Africa. Cobalt, Nickel, and Lithium are the essential raw materials for making the batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles. REE are an essential component of more than 200 consumer products, including mobile phones, computer hard drives, electric and hybrid vehicles, semiconductors, flat screen TVs and monitors, and high-end electronics like space and weapon technologies.
Speaking to Education Times, Chaitanya Lekshmi Indira, associate professor, Department of Chemistry (CoEs: Materials Science/Sensors & Nano electronics), CMR Institute of Technology, Bengaluru, says, “In the current scenario of impending energy transition which is based on hydrogen production as clean fuel for vehicles or environmental remediation through capturing Carbon Dioxide and ensuring water security. These 17 REE along with Nickel, Cobalt, Lithium with metals are part of the crucial catalysis, detection and separation processes involved.”
“The core activity in most engineering colleges is the BE programme whose syllabus is often very rudimentary and the scope on extensive scientific research and development is negligible. Focus on pursuing Masters lacks seriousness as after UG, students and even college faculty are largely engaged in securing better placements. Full time doctoral programmes and the intake of dedicated research faculty for the same which form the core of such research activities is a standard practice in higher education institutes in most countries, but is almost non-existent in Indian engineering colleges except in few cases,” explains Indira.
“Material science and metallurgy branch of applied sciences is highly relevant today due to alternate and renewable energy development (solar, wind, hydrogen production, batteries and super capacitors), consumer electronic gadgets, environmental engineering and remediation (water, air and soil pollution, CO2 capture), geotechnical monitoring (including alternate energy and mining) and composites for varied technology applications. The field of rare earth elements can be one of the important themes to pursue as they are related to most of these activities which can enhance the academic standards and bridge the research gap if faculty and students are oriented properly,” informs Indira.
Manorajan Kumar Manoj, head, department of Metallurgical and Material Engineering, National Institute of Technology, Raipur, says, “20 strategic metals including 17 REEs along with Nickel, Cobalt and Lithium are used in various applications such as manufacturing of high corrosion and heat resistant materials, batteries, electronic components and many more. Li-ion batteries have great potential to be used in electric vehicles and hence these metals are necessary for development of any country. However, in engineering colleges of the country research on extraction of REEs is a neglected domain despite the fact that these metals have a huge strategic relevance attached to them. This is due to the fact that extraction of these metals is a complicated and a costly process.”
“Infrastructural development and motivation among researchers and scientists can help in boosting research and development in the extraction of these metals and their use in manufacturing of various products which are current need of the country,” adds Manoj.

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