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Breakthrough Seen in Recovery of Rare Earth Minerals

Scientists Find New Method to Extract Vital Metals from E-Waste 

Aerial view of surface exploration for mineral deposits.  ©Urtimud.89/pexels
Aerial view of surface exploration for mineral deposits. ©Urtimud.89/pexels

Rare earth minerals are essential for modern devices, such as computers, cell phones, and wind turbines, but there is growing concern about the environmental pollution and human health risks associated with mining these minerals.  

There are currently recycling practices to collect rare earth materials from electronic waste, but these separation methods are costly and time-consuming.  

A breakthrough technology may be at hand. As recently reported, the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) announced that researchers have developed a new way to separate critical rare earth minerals from e-waste.  

PNNL material separation scientists Qingpu Wang, Chinmayee Subban, and Elias Nakouzi presented their findings at the 2024 Materials Research Society (MRS) Spring Meeting on April 25, 2024, in Seattle. In their MRS presentation abstract, the scientists said their process showed “great potential” for “urban mining,” a term for the process of capturing critical minerals from e-waste sites. Advances in urban mining could both boost e-waste recycling and reduce the need for conventional rare earth mineral mining. 

 E-waste recycling center in Spain. ©istock
E-waste recycling center in Spain. ©istock

In their abstract, the trio added that using their e-waste technology would require “a paradigm shift” from current practices. 

According to Science Daily, the PNNL team has already succeeded in “selectively recovering manganese, magnesium, dysprosium, and neodymium,” each being critically important to the electronics industry.  

The team’s novel method exploits the different reactions of various metals to being submerged in a chemical reaction chamber with two different liquids continuously flowing through it. In their model, metals form solids “at different rates over time,” allowing for them to be separated and purified for reuse.  

Describing their process in the journal RSC Sustainability, the team said, “Simply by placing a mixed salt solution on top of a hydrogel loaded with a precipitating agent, we obtained spatially separated precipitates [minerals] along the reactor.”  

This one-step process, they said, is expected to be broadly adaptable to material separation from complex waste streams with diverse chemistries, thus "enabling more sustainable materials extraction and processing” in the future. 



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