Protein extracts rare earths from electronic waste and ash

Rare earths are found on earth much more frequently than the name suggests. However, they are often not in the form of enriched ores. In addition, they are difficult to separate from each other. As a result, the mining of the metals is quite complex and not particularly environmentally friendly. The once world’s largest mine in the United States therefore closed many years ago. Today China is the largest exporter of rare earths. This is not without problems, because the metals in electronic components cannot be replaced by other raw materials. Theoretically, however, there are large quantities of rare earths that have already been mined in many industrialized countries – namely in old electronic parts. However, recycling has so far been very complex because the metals are difficult to separate from one another.

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Cerium and neodymium are indispensable in many electronic parts

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US state of California could now have found an intelligent solution to the problem. They rely on the protein lanmodulin, which on the one hand digests methane, but on the other hand also binds so-called lanthanides. These include the rare earths cerium and neodymium, which are indispensable for electronic components. However, recycling has not yet been possible. The researchers’ approach now consisted of coupling the protein to porous microspheres. If these are then put into a suitable solution, they bind the desired metals to themselves and filter them out of the mass. The advantage of this approach is that the recycling process works without using too much energy or toxic chemicals. The method could thus be used globally.

Rare earths can also be extracted from coal ash

In addition: Lanmodulin binds to different rare earth elements to different degrees. It depends on how acidic the solution is in each case. The protein can therefore also be used to separate the different metals from one another. In this way, the researchers in the laboratory were able to recover around eighty percent of the elements neodymium and dysprosium and separate them from one another. Theoretically, electronic waste could thus become an important source for extracting the coveted metals. The scientists also went one step further: They also tested the Lanmodulin spheres on coal ash. Because in this there are also tiny amounts of rare earths. So far, however, there has not been a process that would have made isolation and processing worthwhile. Here, too, the protein fulfilled its task as desired. Coal ash could also serve as a source for rare earths in the future.

Via: ACS

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