Rare earth metals, such as yttrium and europium, are obtained from mining activities. They have unique properties that currently make them essential for modern electronic devices such as computers, cell phones, LED televisions and electronics used in the aerospace and automotive industries. They are also essential for the operation of energy efficiency lighting.
The dumping of certain light bulbs such as CFLs in landfill sites releases toxic compounds such as mercury that leaches into groundwater and is harmful to human, plants and animals. This practice is being discouraged globally. To support the global community in addressing this problem, chemical engineers at UKZN have patented a technology that recovers rare earth compounds from electronic and lighting waste in a form that can be easily reused.
The process uses chemical engineering techniques known as liquid-liquid extraction and crystallisation.Another important benefit of this technology is that it convert toxic compounds such as mercury, into non-hazardous compounds which can be removed.Small mobile rare earth recovery plants can be easily set-up near electronic waste recycling plants. These plants are cost effective and even profitable when the rare earth metals recovered are sold back into the electronics industry creating an alternative channel to mining for supply of rare earth metals.
Principle Investigator: Dr Mark Williams-Wynn