Recycling Rare-Earths

Dec. 17, 2021

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Four students taking a selfie. They are wearing safety goggles and one holds a large mallet.
Lindsay Berryhill, Mitchell Tober, Alexander Larson and Kerst Kingsbury

Project Title: High Purity Rare Earth Separation

Team 22074 Members:

Turki Ahmed Alzahrani, chemical engineering

Lindsay Brown Berryhill, materials science and engineering

Kerst J Kingsbury, mining engineering

Alexander Xfer Larson, systems engineering

Mitchell Harvey Tober, systems engineering

Sponsor: ReOx Corp.

Forward-thinking ReOx Corp. has enlisted the help of two interdisciplinary capstone teams to find ways to recover rare-earth minerals from recycled materials.

“In the grand scheme of things, our project is a big recycling project,” said materials science and engineering student and project lead Lindsay Berryhill. “Our job is to be able to grind up [materials] and reuse all the elements.”

They are working primarily to recover two kinds of rare minerals. They two are relatively similar, physically and chemically, making it something of a challenge to separate the substances once the source material is ground down to a dust. However, it’s an important part of the project because each substance has unique uses. 

“Rare-earth oxides are kind of a hot topic nowadays,” said mining and geological engineering student Kerst Kingsbury said. “They are used in a lot of different applications, like electronics, aerospace and medical technology. But most of the supply of the world’s rare-earths comes from China, so the U.S. is looking across the board at new recycling processes.”

When Alex Potchatek of sponsoring company ReOx reached out, Larry Head, director of the Craig M. Berge Engineering Design Program, knew the project would be a good fit for an Interdisciplinary Capstone 498 project, which includes students from several College of Engineering departments. But he also thought it would benefit from the involvement of some other departments which run their own, major-specific capstone programs – chemical and environmental engineering (CHEE), and mining and geological engineering (MGE).

As a result, MGE student Kingsbury signed up for the Interdisciplinary Capstone course, rather than the MGE-specific capstone course. And, while one interdisciplinary capstone team tackles the project, a team of CHEE students is taking on the same project separately. 

“We hope the teams learn from each other, since Interdisciplinary Capstone 498 has stressed ‘build’ more, while CHEE includes more economics, safety and environmental aspects of design,” said CHEE Department Chair Kim Ogden.

The Interdisciplinary team and CHEE teams are taking different approaches to separate and reuse materials based on their chemical properties.

“I’m excited ReOx chose Arizona Engineering for this project and that we could partner with these two departments to provide our best capabilities for the work,” Head said.

Pulverizing, Separating, Recycling

The teams are excited to participate in a project that could help solve global resource challenges. And they are gaining skills for organizing long-term projects. For example, the CHEE team is learning about how to design an experiment based on theoretical solutions.

“The most rewarding part of the project has been gaining research experience,” said CHEE student Ethan Dameff. “We feel as though we now have a big picture view of design processes in general.”

The Interdisciplinary Capstone students said it’s been eye opening to work with students outside their majors. Berryhill said she’s benefited from having systems engineering majors Alexander Larson and Mitchell Tober on the team because they share their knowledge of technical languages and processes from major-specific classes.

The team plans to develop a small version of the separation process, which ReOx can then scale up.

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