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US chemists receive US$ 1.8 million grant to maximise metals recovery

America’s National Science Foundation has awarded a US $1.8 million grant to establish the Center for Sustainable Separations of Metals (CSSM). The organisation will be led by chemists from the University of Pennsylvania.

Directed by rare earths metals expert Eric Schelter, the Center will focus on scientific challenges related to metals recycling and sustainability. It will also serve as a meeting point for ‘transformative and innovative research on the fundamental chemistry that can improve the recovery of metals from post-consumer products’.

In short, this work aims to reduce energy consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gases while providing alternative approaches to unsustainable and unethical metal supply chains. Additionally, the CSSM will launch community education and science outreach projects.

While it is still cheaper to mine ‘technology metals’ like gold, platinum, and palladium rather than recycling them, Schelter underlines this situation will not last. Indeed, increased tensions around global trade relations, as well as the ethical and political impacts of mining activities, have made recycling research more important than ever.

‘But there’s an absence of fundamental science needed to transform these supply chains,’ Schelter says. ‘We developed this application to look at what we need to do to fundamentally transform metal supply chains and make recycling a viable, more economic option.’

Schelter has devised a strategy for separating metals based on the rates of chemical reactions, or how quickly products are formed. He was backed by fellow chemists Jessica Anna and Joseph Subotnik. The team points out that existing separation processes for metals rely on thermodynamic approaches; separating metals from a mixture after a chemical reaction is completed. 

Through the CSSM, the three chemists will develop a better recovery method. They will also collect detailed measurements on the chemical reactions to see how they can incorporate kinetics into separation strategies to make recycling more economical. 

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