There are numerous elements and minerals underground that experts and private manufacturers could excavate. Many of these materials are common in many regions around the globe, but only a few are composed of unique abilities that could not be found in others. In scientific studies, these unique and hard-to-find materials are also known as rare earth elements.

Neodymium: Rare Earth Element for Strong Magnets

E-Waste Landfill
(Photo: George Hotelling / WikiCommons)

Among the famous examples of these chemicals is neodymium, harvested to develop technologies that require high levels of magnetic functions. Among the advances equipped with neodymium are aircraft power generators, earphones and loudspeakers, hybrid cars, and even hard drive storage. Although the said chemical is part of the greater electronic industry, collecting minerals with neodymium is still challenging. The places and mining spots filled with chemicals can only be found in a few countries, making the neodymium resource close to limited.

Neodymium is on-demand in every industry that relies on creating strong magnets for their products and innovations. Because of the rarity of the chemical, there have been studies that focused on approaches to conserve the neodymiums present in our time. To limit the risk of depleting the chemical, recycling was found as the most preemptive solution.

Throughout the years of the electronic revolution, neodymiums were extracted from electronic wastes, including old devices such as computers and random circuit boards, for manufacturers to reconstruct the same devices requiring the chemical. This approach has balanced the demand for a while, but because of the separation of minerals and other chemicals from neodymiums, the process was inefficient and costly.

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Extracting Neodymiums From Electronic Wastes Made Easy Through Nanotechnology

With that said, a new study was conducted to provide a substantial solution to the e-waste/neodymium conundrum. The investigation was led by Penn state chemical engineer and biomedical engineer expert Amir Sheikhi. The development uses novel nanotechnology that can separate neodymium from other materials without sweat. The system includes properties from plant cellulose, cotton, and pulp. Former member of Sheikhi's laboratory and Penn State Department of Chemical Engineering's Best Paper Award winner Patricia Wamea co-authored the study with other colleagues.

Sheikhi said in a report by PhysOrg that the neodymium separation process includes the binding of cellulose fibrils nanocrystals to the neodymium ions that, when successful, repels from other ions in distinct chemicals such as sodium, iron, and calcium. This method utilized 'hairy' versions of nanoparticles that were based on cellulose chains. To extract neodymium from other chemicals, the hairy nanoparticle layers were negatively charged and were fused with positively charged neodymiums. This phase produced larger pieces of the chemical that could be reused and recycled in the future.

Sheikhi said that their team's developed approach was effective on chemical removal and quick compared to the traditional extraction of neodymiums. The time recorded from the study shows that the separation could be processed in seconds. The study was published in the Chemical Engineering Journal, titled "Nanoengineering cellulose for the selective removal of neodymium: Towards sustainable rare earth element recovery."

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