These Scientists Have Successfully Extracted Precious Rare Earth Elements From Waste

Precious Rare Earth elements (REE) have been recovered from waste by a team of researchers at Rice University. These elements are actually the metals that have magnetic and electronic properties crucial to modern electronics and green technologies from waste at high yields. They have utilized a process that is gentler on the environment. It consumes less energy and reduces the stream of acid commonly used to recover the elements into a drizzle, which is a huge achievement.

Rare earth metals are not actually rare. For example, cerium is more abundant than copper, and all of them are more abundant than gold. But some metals like yttrium and scandium, in fact, these 15 lanthanide elements are broadly scattered and difficult to extract from mined minerals.

It becomes a problem when one thinks about the fact that REEs are actually necessary components of more than 200 products across many applications, specifically high-tech consumer products like cellular telephones, computer hard drives, electric and hybrid vehicles, and TVs.

The industrial extraction of these wastes involves filtration with a strong acid, which is a time-consuming technique. In contrast, the researchers heated fly ash and other products combined with carbon black to promote conductivity to roughly 5,432 degrees Fahrenheit in a second. The process let them convert the waste into highly soluble “activated REE species”, according to the study published in Science Advances.

“The strategy is general for various wastes,” postdoctoral researcher and lead author Bing Deng said, in a press release. “We proved that the REE recovery yields were improved from coal fly ash, bauxite residue, and electronic wastes by the same activation process.”

Moreover, millions of tons of Bauxite residue and electronic trash are created each year. “The Department of Energy has determined this is a critical need that has to be resolved,” Rice University chemist James Tour said. “Our process tells the country that we’re no longer dependent on environmentally detrimental mining or foreign sources for rare earth elements.”

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