The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded Eric Schelter, an associate professor, and his research group in the Department of Chemistry in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania a 2017 Green Chemistry Challenge Award for his work in developing a simple, fast and low-cost technology to help recycle rare-earth metals.
The award was given as part of the annual EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge, in which industry experts and academics evaluate emerging or demonstrated technologies around their capability for green chemistry and the potential for impact and innovation.
About 17,000 metric tons of rare-earth metals are used in the United States each year in products such as wind turbines, lighting phosphors, electric motors, batteries and cell phones. Despite the taxing environmental, economic and political impact the mining, refining and purification of these materials has, they are currently only recycled at a rate of 1 percent.
“Metals never burn out,” Schelter said. “They're elements. So in principle you can extract them out of post-consumer products and use them again, but there really just isn't very good chemistry that enables us to do that. Currently with the framework that exists in industry, it's cheaper to just get things from primary sources: from mining new elements from the ground and then just using them and throwing them away.”
When Apple put out its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, Schelter said, they made a commitment to “pioneer a closed loop supply chain” to create their products out of 100 percent recycled material.
“I think that's really interesting because from my standpoint that is currently an impossible goal,” he said. “The chemical and engineering infrastructure does not exist in order to make that a realistic vision.”
Apple’s statement challenges Schelter and other people working in the field to innovate and think about how they can actually achieve that goal.
“This is an exciting time to be working in this area of chemistry,” Schelter said. “We hope to be at the forefront of making a vision and a dream like that possible.”
Through his research, Schelter hopes to enable “circular economies” by finding a way to take post-consumer products, such as permanent magnets and lighting phosphors, and extract critical and valuable materials from them that can re-enter the supply chain, turning into new materials with minimal added cost or pollution.
“If we can figure out new ways to get the materials out of these products,” Schelter said, “then that would add value because you're eliminating waste that would otherwise be produced from the primary mining.”
Graduate students Justin Bogart and Bren Cole and alumni Michael Boreen and Connor Lippincott, who was an undergraduate student in the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research, contributed to this research.