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Year-Round Cheers for the Periodic Table @ Georgia Tech

January 8, 2019

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In other words...

October 10, 2017

Team, I have #scicomm on the brain. Not that surprising, as I’m still channeling that inspiration from the national ComSciCon workshop at Harvard I attended last June and working my butt off with a few other graduate students to plan a local iteration. ComSciCon-Atlanta is happening! (More info on that coming soon.)

 

I’m also in a science communication workshop this semester, run by Dr. David Hu, Dr. Jeffrey Donnel, and Dr. Amanda Gable. The latter two professors are communication specialists, dedicating to training undergrads and grad students in written, oral, and visual communication skills. Dr. Hu, on the other hand, runs a bio-locomotion lab here at Georgia Tech, and has a talent for what one colleague called “looking at what everybody has looked at, and seeing

what nobody has seen.” (New York Times 2015) This includes mammals peeing, fire ant rafts and towers, wet dogs shaking, and eyelashes. (Check out his website here.)

 

For the seminar this week, we were asked to prepare two descriptions of our research: one for our scientific peers, and one for a lay audience. This is my jam- check out my summaries below!

For my peers:

 

Rare earth elements (REEs), the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium, play critical roles in many high technology applications, and contributes approximately $329 billion to the U.S. economy. The U.S. is reliant on REE imports, as geological, economic, and environmental hurtles block U.S. REE mining. The U.S. does, however, annually produce 130 million tons of coal fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion that hyper-concentrates noncombustible material. This includes REEs, and in fact some coal fly ashes have demonstrated high REE concentrations on parity with mined ores. Extraction of REEs from ashes and other geological materials are currently energy, acid, and heat intensive with low separation efficiency. My thesis work is to develop novel green lixiviants that will achieve high efficiency with lower costs.  This will contribute to economic stability in REE supply for U.S. technology manufacturers and increase U.S. economic competitiveness.

 

And I would say more, but I’m going to save it until after I publish. (Sorry, y’all.)

 

 Figure 1. The periodic table, featuring rare earth elements. 

Source: http://www.rareelementresources.com/

For a lay audience:

 

Rare earth elements (REEs), have been labeled by the US government and the EU to be “critical materials” for their irreplaceable roles in a large number of high-tech products, ranging from permanent magnets, batteries, wind turbines, cancer treatments, and more. While not technically rare, REEs don’t occur mineable pockets (you would never have a neodymium mine like you have a gold mine, or a copper mine). Currently, 96% of the world’s supply of REEs is owned and mined by China, meaning that the U.S. has to import all REEs they need, which today supports at $329 billion contribution to our economy.

 

My project is focused on extracting REEs from materials we do have at home: namely, coal byproducts. Coal fly ash, one of these byproducts, tends to hyper-concentrate elements that don’t burn, and luckily for us, REEs tend to fall in this category. In fact, some ash samples have as high levels as the rocks we do try to mine for REEs.

 

There are methods for extracting REEs from coal fly ash in existence today, but they all have a lot of problems. They tend to use dangerous acids at high temperatures for long periods of time, and they’re not very efficient in that they generate mixtures of REEs- you still have to separate the REEs from each other.

 

My work is to make this process green, using brand new extracting agents never before used in this way. The new process needs to be relatively low temperature, not use crazy acids, be fast, and, ideally, separate the REEs from each other.

 

These REEs can then be used just like mined REEs we import from China, directly by U.S. tech manufacturers. By creating a stable domestic supply of REEs, the U.S. will become more independent and thus more competitive. This will also generate jobs throughout coal country.

 

Well, I certainly didn’t stick to equal word counts here, but I think that’s my prerogative. "Describe your research to a lay audience" to me certainly means explain each point in a way that connects it to home, to why people might care about your project, whereas that’s not necessarily for your peers in your field- they already get it, and in fact they’re probably already on board.

 

This idea of connecting research to a specific set of values to reach a specific audience I find particularly interesting- perhaps a topic for another post.  

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© 2019 by Laura Mast.

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