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Rare earth champions

Innovation 2019-11-28 Kip Hanson Pontus Höök

What happens when you discard your old cell phone? Nth cycle would like to see it recycled, and they happen to have a method for it.

​Chances are good that you’ve upgraded your cell phone over the past year or two. Have you ever wondered what happened to the old one? According to environmental engineer Megan O’Connor, it’s most likely sitting in a landfill somewhere, gradually leaching neodymium, praseodymium, yttrium and other expensive, often toxic rare earth elements into the surrounding soil and groundwater below. “Globally, only a small percentage of these metals get recycled each year,” she explains. “In fact, practically all of them are simply thrown away.”

O’Connor decided to do something about it. After earning a PhD in environmental engineering from Duke University, she joined forces with colleagues Desirée Plata and Chad Vecitis to found Nth Cycle LLC in Knoxville, Tennessee. Nth Cycle is a company devoted to “steering the United States away from its reliance on primary mining and refining of metals overseas, and toward the recycling of rare earth and specialty metals.”

​“Four years ago, I just happened to attend a meeting called the Summit on Green Electronics at Yale University,” says O’Connor, now the CEO of Nth Cycle and a recent addition to Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list of entrepreneurs. “There were all these big electronics companies sitting around a table discussing the sustainability issues they’re facing over the next five to 10 ten years, and one of the things that kept coming up was recycling. Recycling is too expensive, they said, but we need to make it work somehow. And I thought to myself, ‘Well, why not try to develop a better process, one that’s both effective and affordable?’ So that’s what we did.”

Although O’Connor is not giving away any secrets, she admits the process is similar to reverse-plating, but uses carbon nanotube membranes to separate and recover the RESE oxides (rare earth and specialty elements) from the magnets, speakers, electric vehicle batteries and other electronic components she receives from companies higher up in the recycling chain. It’s an environmentally friendly technology, generating only a small fraction of the acid and solvent-laden wastewater created by existing recycling methods. The process is able to recover 80 to 95 percent of the target elements.

​One might argue, Why bother? Why not continue mining the earth for its natural resources, as we’ve done successfully for centuries? Surely that would be easier and more cost-effective, regardless of the breakthrough development work by O’Connor and her team. Not so fast, she says. Aside from grappling with the serious environmental considerations already mentioned, numerous economic and geopolitical factors also exist.

“It’s already a huge problem, but it’s about to get a lot worse,” O’Connor points out. “Consider automobiles. Industry experts predict that over the next decade, we’re going to go from perhaps a million electric vehicles on the road to 20 million or more, each of which contains several kilograms of cobalt that’s dominantly sourced from Democratic Republic of Congo. A similar discussion can be had about the permanent magnets found in cell phones. Practically all of the neodymium used to make them is mined in China.”

​The question then becomes, What would happen to the electronics, energy, electric vehicle and many other rare-earth-dependent industries if these often-single-source elements became unavailable? It doesn’t take an economist to predict the global disruption that would ensue – disruption that O’Connor is working to avoid. 

O’Connor and her colleagues have a ways to go. Together they formed Nth Cycle in August 2017, shortly after O’Connor graduated. Her team is still in the research and development stage, although they recently completed their first pilot program and are looking for commercial partners with whom they can scale the technology. They’re also halfway through a program called Innovation Crossroads, a two-year fellowship sponsored by the US Department of Energy for young entrepreneurs such as O’Connor who have developed industry-changing technologies.

​O’Connor says, “The Innovation Crossroads program, together with the efforts of the people at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Knoxville community, has really helped us on the business development side. And even though we developed a successful prototype at the university, it probably wasn’t until the last six months of my dissertation that we realized this could actually become a company.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” she continues. “I always wanted to work for a start-up, but I never knew what form it would take. Now I know. Recycling and material efficiency are increasingly important issues, and I think that over the next few years we'll see more companies like ours rising up, so I’m very glad that we took the leap when we did. We’ve been very fortunate.”



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