The elements known as rare earth elements are not, according to their name, very uncommon. The 17 metallic elements are abundant in nature and are becoming even more prevalent in technology, where they are used as vital components in microchips and other electronic devices.
The “rare” descriptor refers to how difficult removing them and converting them into a functional form is. The conventional procedure for extracting rare earth elements from composite minerals is often energy expensive. It creates high carbon emissions, and a significant proportion of rare earth elements is lost as waste from other industrial operations.
Penn State researchers have been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to recover rare earth elements from phosphogypsum. The grant is part of a $1.7 million total funding package, including Case Western Reserve University and Clemson University. Although each institution is separately financed to explore a particular project component, the overall effort is centrally overseen by academics at Case Western Reserve University. Lauren Greenlee, and Rui Shi, are co-principal investigators in charge of the grant.
Today, Greenlee estimates that an estimated 200,000 tons of rare earth elements are trapped in unprocessed phosphogypsum trash in the state of Florida alone. He goes on to explain that phosphogypsum is routed into ditches and ponds for indefinite storage. “As a result of the difficulties connected with radioactive species and the difficulty in isolating the constituent elements, this supply of rare earth elements is now untapped.” “The overall goal of this project is to discover new separation mechanisms and materials, as well as new processing methods, to recover valuable resources from waste streams of the fertilizer industry, such as rare earth elements, fertilizers, and clean water. This result will be a sustainable domestic supply of rare earth elements and a sustainable agriculture sector.”
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Greenlee further pointed out that the United States depends heavily on overseas sources for rare earth element supplies. The COVID-19 pandemic created delays in the supply chain as a result of the outbreak.
It is created when phosphate rock is processed into fertilizer Phosphogypsum is used in the production of fertilizer. Because of the radioactivity of the byproduct, it can be retained forever, and improper storage may cause contamination of land, water, and the environment. The researchers suggest a multistage approach that uses synthetic peptides to accurately recognize and separate the rare earth elements trapped in phosphogypsum. The rare earth elements contained in phosphogypsum are then separated using a customized membrane.
As a result of the exact sizes and equivalent formal charges of individual rare earth elements, one of the primary technical goals of this study is to uncover the processes that drive peptide-ion selectivity and to use that knowledge to develop a new class of highly selective membranes.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University, Christine Duval, and Julie Renner, co-principal investigator, will collaborate on the project. Rachel Getman, principle investigator and associate professor of chemistry and biomolecular engineering at Clemson University, will use computer modeling to guide the development of their prototypes. Greenlee will investigate how the peptides work in water solutions once developed, while Shi will use systems analysis tools.
It will also complement previous Penn State studies, including work utilizing naturally occurring protein molecules to recover clustered rare earth metals from other industrial waste sources, which will be further developed via this initiative.
According to Greenlee, the hypothesis for her project is that water molecules associated with peptides binding to rare earth elements reorganize, and we can precisely control that reorganization to be more efficient based on the individual rare earth element. She explained that her team would examine the interactions at an atomic level by employing X-ray absorption spectroscopy to confirm that the molecules exchange atoms while binding. Through modeling and testing, we will continue to iterate until we fully understand how the molecules interact with one another.”