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RecycleREEvolution News

Materials.Business Newsletter ⚙️ November 23d, 2023


Taking advantage of Mendeleev’s legacy

All of us know that chemical reactions are omnipresent in corrosion phenomena. One way or another, corrosionists are chemists. Chemistry deals with chemical elements. According to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry – IUPAC -, a chemical element is “a species of atoms; all atoms with the same number of protons in the atomic nucleus.” In principle, a few elements, a little over one hundred, but only the first 94 of which occur in nature, constitute the complexity of our current universe. A series of elements systematized according to some of their properties by Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834–1907), the Russian chemist who found that chemical elements could be arranged such that basic properties repeat periodically, depending on the atomic number. Considering this periodicity, Mendeleev invented the Periodic Table - PT, a graphic description of the periodicity. It's more than just a map of chemical elements. In fact, the PT was Mendeleev’s tool for clarifying properties of some of the elements and predicting properties, behaviors, and even elements that are not yet. The PT currently includes eighteen columns, families, or groups with similar electronic configurations and valence, ranging from alkaline metals to noble gases. Seven horizontal rows or periods put together the elements according to their trend on atomic radii, ionization energy, electronic affinity, and electronegativity. In addition, some subgroups or categories according to their physicochemical properties can be recognized across the table, such as metals (transition metals, refractory metals, and noble ones), metalloids, and non-metals. From the beginning, the simple map that apparently is PT offers many of the answers that we are looking for current problems and will surely provide the information necessary to solve those we do not yet have. Two years ago, the United Nations did a tribute to the Ps, celebrating the 150 years of the first Mendeleev table, declaring 2019 as “The International Year of the Periodic Table”. These are some of the words by Qi-Feng Zhou, IUPAC President welcoming such celebration: “There is no scientific symbol more ubiquitous than the periodic table. It is a map of our knowledge, particularly in chemistry, and a symbolic representation of the process of scientific research. It is also a reference tool that is much needed in scientific communication. The history of the periodic table and IUPAC demonstrates the gradual perfection of scientific research and the continuous effort for better communication to facilitate it.”

A “forgotten” group of elements

Simple but complex, PT may be divided also by blocks, according to the energy of the higher-level energy occupied. One of these is the f block, which includes two sub-rows called lanthanoids and actinoids. The lanthanoid series are the rare-earth metals, rare-earth oxides, or rare-earth elements – REEs, including 15 elements, plus yttrium and scandium because of their similar properties. REEs are classified as light (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium and scandium) and heavy REEs (terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium and yttrium). Sometimes the chemical elements of the actinoid series are also considered to be REEs. In this group, only actinium, thorium, protactinium, and uranium occur in nature. The transuranium elements are obtained by bombarding the naturally occurring actinoids. REEs is an understandable name, especially when they were discovered, but one that perhaps weighs them down and helps keep them a bit out of the more conventional chemical processes, unfamiliar, and forgotten for being "rare." REEs are similar in appearance, most of the time mineralogical associated with the same ore deposits and, consequently, difficult to separate. REEs show very similar chemical properties and differences, mainly in electronic and magnetic properties. Gadolinite was the first mineral containing REEs discovered in 1787, which is a nesosilicate with the chemical formula (Ce,La,Nd,Y)2 FeBe2 Si2O10. Until the 1990s, the USA was the largest producer of REEs in the world. Then, China became the first one producing about 60 percent of the worldwide REEs in 2020, followed by the USA and Myanmar, sharing another 30 percent. Rare-earth metal production worldwide had risen from 190.000 tons in 2018 to 220.000 tons in 2019 and 240.000 tons in 2020. The main application of REEs is in permanent magnets for traction motors for electric vehicles, cell phones, TVs, computers, hard disk drives, microphones, speakers, wind turbine generators, jet aircraft, LED lights, lasers, LCD and plasma screens, etc. In addition, the catalyst (e.g., petroleum refining and automobile fumes conversion) and ceramic sectors (e.g., superconductors and glass and enamel such colorants) are demanding REEs. Ultimately, metallurgy is being applied to obtaining special alloys such as new stainless steel, hydrophobic coatings, and battery and fuel cell alloys. In other words, REEs are the elements of the post-globalization time, the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution under sustainability threats, and the energy transition goal. But a considerable exploration looking for the undiscovered deposits, considering conventional and new sources such as the seabed sediments, much better ore processing, and proper recycling and recovery, underlining urban mining, are required because we are talking about almost a fifth part of the chemical elements found in nature!

According to investigations, by 2040, experts estimate, we’ll need up to seven times as much rare earths as we do today, so recycling and innovation are going to play a HUGE role in the future of these elements and how we use them. There is hope on the horizon with developments as the following:

Microbial Recycling: Researchers are exploring the use of microbes, such as Gluconobacter bacteria, to produce organic acids that can extract rare earth elements from spent catalysts and phosphors. This approach is considered environmentally friendlier than traditional methods using hazardous chemicals, and it shows potential for profitability.
Lanmodulin-based System: Some bacteria can produce a protein called lanmodulin, which selectively grabs onto rare earth metals, facilitating their separation. This protein-based system may eliminate the need for chemical solvents typically used in separation processes, and the waste product is biodegradable.
Copper Salt Method: A commercialized method skips traditional acids and uses copper salts to leach rare earths from discarded magnets, particularly neodymium-iron-boron magnets. This approach has shown high efficiency, recovering 90 to 98 percent of rare earths with a lower carbon footprint compared to traditional mining and processing.
Automated Recycling: Companies like Apple are developing robots, such as Daisy, Taz, and Dave, to automate the recycling process. These robots can dismantle electronic devices, recover magnet-containing modules, and extract magnets from various components, making the recycling of rare earths more efficient.

So, what is the connection to Sustainability for Corrosion or Materials Engineers?

While recycling presents a promising solution, there are still technological, economic, and logistical challenges to overcome. Corrosion and materials engineers play a vital role in developing and optimizing recycling processes, making them more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly.

One of the research lines is concerned with anticorrosive coatings for Mg alloys and galvanized coatings on steel. Also, the influence of REEs on the behavior of conversion coatings, cladding, and thermal barriers. Additionally, the study of REEs as corrosion inhibitors and alloying elements spans diverse applications, from steels to light alloys, refractory alloys, and even biomedical alloys.

This marks just the beginning of a vast landscape of opportunities for materials scientists and engineers. Corrosionists can leverage powerful tools such as neural networks, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain to delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding REEs. The arsenal also includes cutting-edge microscopic and spectroscopic research tools, along with innovative concepts like complex composition alloys, high entropy alloys, and multi-principal element alloys, offering a plethora of new material properties, notably enhanced corrosion resistance.

Moreover, the advent of advanced processing methods like additive manufacturing introduces further possibilities to redefine the landscape of anti-corrosion measures and asset protection. The collaborative efforts of researchers and innovators are crucial in developing novel alloys, coatings, paints, and inhibitors to harness the potential of the REE niche.

As we stand at the precipice of this new era in corrosion science and engineering, the uncharted territories of REEs beckon, promising a future where the fight against corrosion is not just robust but technologically and scientifically sophisticated.

In summary, the emerging solutions in rare earth element recycling offer a pathway toward a more sustainable approach, aligning with the goals of corrosion and materials engineers to develop technologies that reduce environmental impact and promote responsible resource management.

Wix AI-generated image - prompt: Rare Earth Elements Recycling

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