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New solution for recycling of rare earths

United States – Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA have developed a process that could enable the efficient recycling of rare earth metals from compact fluorescent light bulbs.

‘Everybody’s heard of blood diamonds – but maybe people haven’t heard of blood cobalt or tantalum or lithium,’ says project leader Eric Schelter, associate professor in the university’s School of Arts & Sciences’ chemistry department. The recycling innovation is ‘huge’, he argues, because mining and purifying rare earths is not only expensive and labour-intensive but also has a ‘devastating’ effect on communities and the environment.

The novel recycling method can be extended to all rare earths. First, a series of hundreds of fluid chambers are hooked up in parallel with two fluids flowing past one another, one of which is aqueous and acidic while the other is organic. The dissolved metals are extracted between the immiscible solutions.

This process is repeated thousands of times and chemically filters apart the elements. The new approach is said to minimise the amount of waste generated as well as time and energy requirements.

The team’s research paper focused on the pairing of europium and yttrium, with scientists able to recycle rare-earth metals from compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Their findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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