Advance Queensland fellowship recipient develops research for sustainable technology to recover rare earth elements

Dr Denys Villa Gomez is an Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship recipient and is working on developing research to capture rare earth elements using biocatalysts. 

The recovery of rare earth elements is a key priority for Australia and the world and is an essential component of new technologies to tackle climate change. The lack of supply and high demand for these elements is a significant concern, and the research being conducted by Dr Gomez is crucial to finding sustainable and cost-effective methods to recover these critical metals.

Dr Gomez's research involves identifying enzymes and proteins that that will be texted for commercialisation as biocatalysts to capture rare earth elements. Using high-throughput synthetic biology tools, Dr Gomez aims to develop methods to recover critical metals from bauxite residues, that do not exist in the mining industry in Australia. 

The Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship supports researchers in carrying out studies that benefit Queensland, and Dr Gomez's research is a perfect example of this. With $360,000 in funding received over three years, Dr Gomez can focus on her research and make significant strides towards developing methods for recovering rare earth elements from bauxite residues.

Can you provide a short overview of your research project? 

The research will identify bioprocesses and mechanisms that allow the development of sustainable technologies to recover metals from red mud need to reduce carbon emissions. This will be achieved by using omics and synthetic biology. 

The research will identify two key factors including:  

  1. key biological components. For example genes/gen-systems, enzymes, proteins and mechanisms, that facilitate the recovery of these critical elements  
  2. design microbial communities with superior metabolism. 

The project outcomes include novel low-carbon footprint bioprocesses and low-cost biocatalysts with high commercial, and research and development potential. 

Who are you partnering with and why?  

The key partners in this project are Rio Tinto and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology (CoESB). Rio Tinto has been at the forefront of accelerating the transition to sustainable mine waste remediation and has shown strong interest in developing biotechnologies, especially when considering what synthetic biology could unlock.  

CoESB will provide solutions to environmental challenges using synthetic biology, so the partnership will ensure the research objectives, by providing world-leading centre facilities and expertise that secures industry translation.  

How will the funding support you on your research journey? 

Advance Queensland funding will provide human and material capabilities to accelerate the translation to fit-for-purpose technologies in the mining space that will assist to recover critical metals.  

It will enable the continuation of other research projects particularly by Queensland-based research institutes in this space.  

How will your research benefit and assist Queenslanders? 

This research will use innovative methods to achieve the sustainable future for Queensland and will develop environmentally responsible mining practices that will accelerate new economy/critical minerals industry, to manage the state’s waste and pollution.  

This research will use sustainable and cost-effective methods to recover metals from bauxite resides that do not exist in the mining industry. Ultimately, this process will enable Queensland to tackle climate change by suppling critical metals to reduce carbon emissions and help reduce the pollution risk from mine waste. This will enhance the competitiveness and sustainability of the Queensland mining sector and could help to overcome the current management of mining waste based on linear economy thinking, to a more sustainable circular economy model. 

What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the 2022 Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowships program?  

Being a recipient of the 2022 Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowships program opens many doors as it means having the infrastructure available to conduct my research and deliver research to help society and the Queensland environment.  

These research and commercial outputs that will result in publications and patents and will allow engagement in new projects, are beneficial for the world.  

This fellowship will help to progress my career goals which include being a leader that forges new directions and influence my research field internationally. 

Last updated 31 Mar, 2023
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