An aerial view of the Argonne National Laboratory.

Scientists study efficient methods to recover metals from waste

A graphic representation of X-ray scattering and sum frequency generation spectroscopy.
Scientists used X-ray scattering techniques, top, and sum frequency generation spectroscopy, bottom, to study the separation mechanisms at the interface of water and oil, depicted here, during extraction. (Credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

Lanthanides and actinides are metals that often can be found in waste materials from nuclear power technologies and electronic devices that contain magnets — such as electric vehicles and wind turbines. Separating these metals from the waste allows them to be recycled.

Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory used their powerful X-ray equipment to study a more efficient separation process called solvent extraction. They studied adding certain salts, nitrate and thiocyanate, to the process to learn how they interact with different molecules and metals. The X-ray allowed them to observe the molecules’ behavior at an extremely small scale.

They concluded that lanthanides are extracted differently in the presence of the salts. Gaining this better understanding of the separation process could lead to more efficient processes for removing the metals from nuclear and electronic waste for reuse. That reduces the need for environmentally taxing and expensive mining.

“This research provided important insights that will enable effective and energy-efficient separation,” said chemist Ahmet Uysal in a news release. ​“Understanding this process will help with purification of critical materials for industrial applications.”

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