Eco Friendly Extraction of Rare Earth Elements from Electronic Waves


Manufactures rely on rare earth elements, like Neodymium, to create strong magnets used in motors for electronics including hybrid cars, aircraft generators, loudspeakers, hard drives, and in-ear headphones. But mineral deposits containing neodymium are hard to reach and are found in just a few places on Earth.

Due to increasing industrial demands for neodymium, a rare earth metal used for creating magnets in motors for electronic devices, attention has turned towards recycling electronic waste (e-waste) including discarded computers and printed circuit boards.

With the rising need for neodymium from several industries, attention has turned to recycling the elements found in old computers and printed circuits boards, otherwise known as electronic waste, to meet demand. But separating the valuable elements from other minerals and components found in e-waste proves to be a challenge.

This is a good move as it not only helps in recycling e-waste but also counters the scarce natural availability of neodymium.

Recently in the Chemical Engineering Journal, Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, at Penn State, details new nanotechnology to separate neodymium using plant cellulose, which is found in paper, cotton, and pulp. Patricia Waimea, a former member of Sheikhi’s lab who graduated in May with a master of science degree, co-authored the paper and earned the Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering’s annual Best paper award in fall 2021 for her contributions.

But separating valuable elements from minerals and components found in e-waste is a challenge. Current rate earth elements from other minerals and components found in e-waste is a challenge. Current rare earth element recycling processes are environmentally detrimental due to the use of highly acidic chemicals to extract the elements.

In the process, hairy cellulose nanocrystals, nanoparticles derived from cellulose fibrils, blind selectively to neodymium ions, separating them from other ions, such as iron, calcium, and sodium, according to Sheikhi. The nanoparticles are known as “hairy” due to cellulose chains attached to their two ends, which perform critical chemical functions.

“The process is effective in its removal capacity, selectivity, and in its speed,” said Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering at Penn State University. “It can separate neodymium in seconds by selectively removing the element from some of the tested impurities.”

According to him, the process is also sustainable, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly due to the use of cellulose while minimizing the harmful impacts resulting from open-pit mining.

In the future, the research team aims to implement a cellulose-based adsorption process for the extraction of rare earth elements like neodymium from industrial wastewater, mining tails, and unused permanent magnets.

“This contribution to rare earth recycling will have a strategic and economically-viable impact on several industries,” Sheikhi said. “The more neodymium we recycle, the more we can manufacture electric and hybrid vehicles and wind turbines, leading to less strain on the environment.

So here we conclude that science and scientist are working on finding new elements from the earth and trying to use various advanced techniques that help to discover more.

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