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Laura Mast

Georgia Institute of Technology, Ph.D.
EREF Scholar 2015

Chelant-Enhanced Selective Leaching and Capture of Rare Metals from Coal Ash

Project Description (while EREF Scholar):
Rare earth elements (REEs) have played an invaluable role in the development of clean energy technology and high tech manufacturing. High global demand along with global scarcity has sober implications for future development. To address this supply issue, it is crucial that alternative resources and methods are developed for the recovery of REEs.

Research has shown that solid wastes such as coal combustion ash and incineration ash may be promising alternative sources of REEs due to their high concentrations in these waste byproducts. However, many obstacles exist before recovery of REEs from the above solid wastes becomes industrially viable and practical. Many knowledge gaps still exist, including a better understanding of the distribution of REEs in the coal and incineration ashes, as well as more efficient and environmentally sustainable methods to extract and recover REEs from these solid wastes.

The focus of the project will be to develop chelant-assisted methods for extraction, separation and recovery of REEs from coal and incineration ashes, which will achieve higher efficiency and selectivity and be more environmentally sustainable than conventional metallurgical methods.

Chelants with different functional binding sites and geometry exhibit different complexation affinity toward different metals. Appropriate selection, design and employment of chelants will be developed to achieve the most effective and selective method. To assess the performance and robustness of the chelant-assisted method and impact of different ash matrices, the method will be applied to a range of representative waste ashes, which will be fully characterized in parallel.

The development of a robust, environmentally sustainable, efficient and selective REE extraction method will expand the role of resource recovery in industry as well as improve the fundamental understanding of the complexation chemistry of REEs and mineral dissolution in ashes. Most importantly, this project will help prepare the solid waste industry with better tools and knowledge to promote resource recovery in the treatment and management of solid wastes.

Laura graduated with Honors in Chemistry in 2014 from Vanderbilt University. While at Vanderbilt, she was awarded a Beckman Scholar Award and studied ligand functionalization and nanomaterial synthesis and development with Dr. Janet Macdonald. While minoring in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Laura extended her training and passion for environmental issues beyond the science, building a comprehensive understanding of sociopolitical and economic contexts as well. She is currently a second year graduate student and President’s Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she is pursuing her PhD in Environmental Engineering.  Working with advisor Dr. Ching-Hua Huang, she has developed a research project combining her love of research and passions for environmental chemistry and materials science in resource recovery, namely the development of novel chelant-enhanced selective leaching and extraction methods for rare earth elements and other valuable materials from solid wastes.

Following her PhD, Laura hopes to continue her work in resource recovery as an industry researcher and consultant. Improvements in technology for sustainable waste management will become more important in the future as demands for resource recovery continue to increase. Eventually, she hopes to enter into public policy surrounding hazardous and non-hazardous waste management.