Rare Earth Element Mass Analyzer

Period of Performance: 06/12/2017 - 03/11/2018


Phase 1 SBIR

Recipient Firm

Physical Optics Corp.
1845 West 205th Street Array
Torrance, CA 90501
Firm POC
Principal Investigator


Rare earth elements are commonly used in modern high-tech products, including electronics, chemical catalysts, and lasers, and global demand for them is rising rapidly. However, these minerals are often difficult to locate, mine, and purify, posing a significant availability risk due to the disparity between supply and demand. Therefore, the rare earth elements are considered as strategic minerals crucial in defense, energy, and industry. With the increasing need for these elements and heavy dependence on foreign sources, it is vital to develop an economically viable and sustainable domestic supply of rare earth elements. Recently, a preliminary evaluation of coal and coal by-products was conducted as potential domestic sources of rare earth elements and a specific need was identified for a field-deployable rare earth element analysis system that can detect these components over a wide dynamic range of concentration (parts per billion/million to ~10%). In particular, a chemical analysis technology capable of detecting multiple rare earth elements, as well as other important elements, is highly desirable. To address this need for a field-deployable characterization/analysis system, development of a compact, universal rare earth element analysis system is proposed. The system is based on a compact mass spectrometry system (~12 inches × 12 inches × 12 inches) developed for the this same customer for atmospheric gas analysis, combined with an advanced sample ionization technique that can be used for coal and/or coal by-products, in both solid and aqueous forms. A breadboard prototype for rare earth element analysis will be constructed and tested on samples containing rare earth elements. Desorption and ionization techniques will be optimized for coal and/or coal by-products. The proposed technology will allow rapid, on-site characterization to determine any content of rare earth and other elements in the sample. Samples containing different rare earth species with various concentration levels will be used in the feasibility demonstration. The design concept for the portable Phase II prototype will also be proposed. Other than its apparent application in the mining industry, analytic chemistry is extremely important in environmental monitoring and protection, forensic science, chemical warfare, pharmaceutical research and development, as well as in clinical applications. A portable instrument providing real-time analysis of target samples will have a broad impact in many industries requiring field-deployable sensors that provide test results quickly and reliably.