Microbe beads to recycle rare earth metals

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A team from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) researchers turn to microbe beads to recover rare earth elements from consumer electronic waste.The team developed a scalable biosorbent material – a microbe-embedded polymer – by combining material science with microbiology. The new method could be used to recover REE’s from end of life products that use neodymium (NdFeB) magnets.

Rare earth elements (REEs) are indispensable components of many green technologies and of increasing demand globally. However, refining REEs from raw materials using current technologies is energy intensive and enviromentally damaging. Here, we describe the development of a novel biosorption-based flow-through process for selective REE recovery from electronic wastes. An Escherichia coli strain previously engineered to display lanthanide-binding tags on the cell surface was encapsulated within a permeable polyethylene glycol diacrylate (PEGDA) hydrogel at high cell density using an emulsion process. This microbe bead adsorbent contained a homogenous distribution of cells whose surface functional groups remained accessible and effective for selective REE adsorption. The microbe beads were packed into fixed-bed columns, and breakthrough experiments demonstrated effective Nd extraction at a flow velocity of up to 3 m/h at pH 4–6. The microbe bead columns were stable for reuse, retaining 85% of the adsorption capacity after nine consecutive adsorption/desorption cycles. A bench-scale breakthrough curve with a NdFeB magnet leachate revealed a two-bed volume increase in breakthrough points for REEs compared to non-REE impurities and 97% REE purity of the adsorbed fraction upon breakthrough. These results demonstrate that the microbe beads are capable of repeatedly separating REEs from non-REE metals in a column system, paving the way for a biomass-based REE recovery system.

Read on-line on Environ. Sci. Technol. 2019, 53, 23, 13888-13897.

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