Neaton added that recent advances in nanoscience, which allows researchers to synthesize and control materials at the level of atoms and molecules and a few tens of nanometers, has potential to play a large role in the process. Also, new nanoscale characterization tools and theory could bring breakthroughs in understanding that will be important in guiding the search for replacement materials.
Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division has deep experience in the modeling of subsurface chemical processes and in geochemical analysis of mineral surface structure and pore chemistry, expertise that will be useful in studying new ways to recover rare earth elements. Another approach would take advantage of "-omics" methods (which includes genomics and proteomics) to identify microorganisms that could aid in releasing rare earths from minerals.
At the other end of the process but encompassing the overall use of rare earth materials, researchers Jim McMahon and Eric Masanet of Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division specialize in analyzing industrial processes and quantifying the environmental and energy implications. Their lifecycle analysis of critical materials will focus on how to reuse and recycle them in efficient and environmentally acceptable ways.
Currently, the rare earth elements in computers, smart phones and other electronic gadgets are often either thrown away or sent abroad to be recovered-typically using low-cost labor and environmentally hazardous means. Today's cell phones use 40 different elements; a Toyota Prius contains approximately 30 pounds of rare earth material.
"The materials are not designed to be easily recovered from the product, so we would look at the entire process of how something is
|Contact: Julie Chao|
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory