Nanoengineered cellulose for the sustainable separation of rare earth elements

A. Sheikhi
The Pennsylvania State University,
United States

Keywords: anionic hairy nanocellulose, cellulose nanocrystals, rare earth elements (REE), neodymium removal, magnet recycling, critical elements


Rare earth elements (REE) have exceedingly become critical in advanced industries. Despite the high demand for REE, the world is still experiencing a shortage in ready-to-exploit resources, environmentally friendly processing, and reliable recovery strategies, rendering sustainable REE removal an immediate and unmet environmental, industrial, and economical challenge worldwide. We nanoengineered cellulose, the most abundant biopolymer in the world, to develop a sustainable bio-based technology named anionic hairy nanocellulose (AHNC) for the high-capacity and selective removal of neodymium ions (Nd3+), one of the most widely used REE, from aqueous media. AHNC comprises fully solubilized dicarboxylated cellulose (DCC) chains and cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) decorated with DCC (hairs) bearing a charge density that is about one order of magnitude higher than conventional CNC. The unique colloidal properties of AHNC, particularly the polyanionic hairs, enable the removal of ~ 264 ± 14 mg of Nd3+ per gram of the nanoadsorbent within seconds, which, to the best of our knowledge, place this advanced material among the adsorbents with the highest removal capacity at the shortest contact time. We investigated the roles of ionic strength, pH, and competing iron species on the performance of AHNC. Together, our colloidal engineering approach combined with the biorenewability of cellulose and an ambient, low-cost unit operation, renders AHNC a promising sustainable nanotechnology for the removal of Nd3+ from industrial wastewater, mining tails, e-waste, and NdFeB permanent magnet leachates.