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NETL’s MUST Technology for removing heavy metals and extracting rare earth elements granted patent

A technology developed by researchers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) that can effectively capture heavy metals from acid mine drainage and municipal water supplies and extract beneficial critical minerals such as aluminum, nickel and rare earth elements (REE) from water, has been granted a US patent.

The patent for “Multi-functionalized Basic Immobilized Amine Sorbents for Removal of Metal Contaminants from Wastewater” was issued as US patent number 11,850,571 B2 in December 2023. The technology is known as multi-functional sorbent technology (MUST).

MUST, initially developed for use in carbon capture applications, won a 2021 R&D 100 Award and a bronze medal in the eco-innovation category of the Edison Awards in 2022.

After working on carbon capture applications, NETL developers McMahan L. Gray, Fan Shi, Walter C. Wilfong, Qiuming Wang, and Brian W. Kail discovered that MUST can play a significant role in removing toxic metals that flow from thousands of abandoned and active mines across the nation that pollute streams, destroy aquatic life and contaminate water supplies.


Source: NETL

Additional opportunities for even wider use of the technology soon became apparent. For example, MUST can be used to remove lead from municipal drinking water and radioactive species from nuclear wastewater. MUST can also extract beneficial critical minerals from water.

REEs and other critical minerals are used in the production of medical equipment, clean energy components, electric vehicles, electronics, military technology and a wide variety of other consumer goods.

Working with a previous commercial partner and building upon our own internal research, we effectively demonstrated that MUST can remove metals from acid mine drainage. But that was only the beginning. This patent will help us attract new partners to work with NETL to adapt the technology for use in other critical metal recovery and water treatment applications and that will lead to cleaner water for millions of people and a reliable supply of REEs for hundreds of consumer products and national defense.

— McMahan L. Gray, NETL developer

MUST is a suite of versatile and low-cost, regenerable sorbent materials. MUST strongly binds and removes selenium, lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals from acid mine drainage and other industrial effluents.

Because MUST is a particle sorbent with open pores, rapid transport of metals into and out of the sorbent provides quick adsorption-desorption cycling. NETL research has demonstrated that the adsorption capacity of MUST for some key metal contaminants is 50% higher than other commercial exchange methods.


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