DS VIEW: Rare earth elements

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UND has now been awarded over $1 million in coal research in the last six months. The first research grant came in late August, when UND was awarded $400,000 to research coal conversion technologies.

Officials say it will allow scientists to take a closer look at more efficient fossil fuel based power generation.

The research will be done through computer simulation, and school leaders say it is great hands-on experience for graduate students.

“It’s definitely a very big deal. We would like to be thought of as having a very high energy focus,” chemical engineering professor Gautham Krishnamoorthy said. “We definitely would like to be thought of as one of the good institutions to do energy-related research.”

The research is being done as a collaborative effort with the University of Utah.

More recently, UND was awarded $748,847 from the U.S. Department of Energy. The purpose of the research is to better extract rare earth elements from coal. Some of the common rare earth elements that can be extracted from coal include glass, metal alloys,  ceramics, phosphors and magnets.

The rare earth elements are chemically essential to technologies, health care, transportation and electronics. Due to their unique magnetic, luminescent and electrochemical properties, these elements help make different technologies with reduced weight, reduced emissions and less energy consumption. They can also give more efficient performance, miniaturization, speed, durability and thermal stability.

There are 17 rare earth elements — most of which are found in the lanthanide series. The lanthanide series contain all elements within range of the atomic numbers 57 to 71.

Given our technological dependence to these metals, I think it’s important to advise caution when harvesting these materials. After all, these metals are not nearly as abundant as nickel, copper, aluminum or iron. Eventually, we will run out of harvestable rare metals and technology will have to adopt other resources for production.

Recycling old phones and other electronics is a great way to keep the rare elements in use. Since 2010, China has produced 97 percent of all rare earth elements in the market today. Recently though, they have limited their exportation, causing as much as a 2000 percent increase in value for some rare earth elements.

If you have an old phone, now would be a good time to see how much you can get from recycling the rare earth elements found inside.