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Michael Martinez developed a way to extract rare earth elements in an environmentally friendly way
Michael Martinez. Photo courtesy Marilyn Jones.

A University of Alaska Anchorage student founded a company that garnered him an international award in early 2021. Michael Martinez, an undergraduate senior studying chemistry, won the High North Young Entrepreneur Award for his work using microbes to extract rare earth elements in an environmentally friendly process. 

Martinez got his start in lab research at the Biomedical Career Academy at Service High School when he was 14 years old. He progressed from one lab to the next until he landed in the lab of Dr. Brandon Briggs, associate professor of Biological Sciences at UAA. Working in Briggs’s lab, Martinez discovered a way to use bacteria and fungi to extract rare earth elements from various types of ore at a relatively neutral pH. 

Martinez founded the company Arctic Biotech Oath to develop and apply the biotechnology. Rare earths are valuable elements used in renewable energy systems and technology manufacturing. The high-value market is currently dominated by China. In 2019, 80 percent of the rare earth elements imported by the United States came from China. Martinez envisions Arctic Biotech Oath being a key player in helping the United States develop a supply chain of rare earths from mines in Alaska and around the circumpolar north. “It’s very exciting to see where this can go,” he says. 

Despite all the recent attention and the prospect of having founded what could become a huge company, Martinez says he stays grounded by focusing on research and incrementally advancing the extraction process. For now, he’s happy knowing the attention can serve an example for other Alaskan youth.

“As an indigenous person—being Yup’ik—it’s very exciting for other indigenous students to see that we can be part of new technology,” Martinez says. “We can help make a major impact in the green industry that is able to affect essentially the whole world.”

Author

Alexander Deedy is the assistant editor and digital content manager for Alaska magazine.

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