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Electronic Waste Brings Rare Earth Elements

Rare earth elements, such as neodymium, are used to make strong magnets for Electronic devices such as hybrid cars, aircraft generators, loudspeakers, hard drives, and in-ear headphones. Mineral deposits containing neodymium, on the other hand, are hard to come by and can only be found in a few areas on the planet. With a growing need for neodymium from a variety of industries, focus has shifted to recycling the elements found in outdated computers and printed circuit boards, often known as Electronic waste, in order to meet demand.

Separating the valuable elements from the other minerals and components contained in e-waste, on the other hand, proves difficult. Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering at Penn State, describes a new nanotechnology for separating neodymium using plant cellulose, which is found in paper, cotton, and pulp, in a recent study in the Chemical Engineering Journal.

Electronic Waste Brings Rare Earth ElementsAccording to Sheikhi, hairy cellulose nanocrystals, nanoparticles formed from cellulose fibrils, attach exclusively to neodymium ions in the process, isolating them from other ions such as iron, calcium, and sodium. Due to cellulose chains connected to their two ends, which perform crucial chemical processes, the nanoparticles are referred to as “hairy.” The researchers accomplished this by negatively charging the nanoparticles’ hairy layers in order to attract and bond with the positively charged neodymium ions, resulting in particle aggregation into bigger pieces that can be successfully recycled and reused.

According to Sheikhi, current rare earth element recycling procedures are harmful to the environment. To extract the components in chemical reactions, they frequently use highly acidic conditions. Because cellulose, an affordable renewable material, is used in Sheikhi’s procedure, it is environmentally friendly. The traditional mining technique is hazardous and costly, with open-pit mining having negative environmental consequences.

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