Story tips From the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, October 2018

Caption: In work funded by the DOE Critical Materials Institute, ORNL researchers are demonstrating how rare earth permanent magnets can be harvested from used computer disk drives and repurposed in an axial gap motor. Credit: Jenny Woodbery/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Magnets recovered from used computer hard drives found new life in an electric motor in a first-ever demonstration at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The permanent magnets made from rare earth elements were reused without alteration in an axial gap motor, which can be adapted for use in electric vehicles and industrial machinery. The demonstration is part of an effort to find ways to recycle rare earth permanent magnets, which are necessary for electric cars, cell phones, laptops, wind turbines and factory equipment. The rare earth ore used to make the magnets is in high demand and mined almost exclusively outside the United States. “We’re not inventing a new magnet,” said ORNL’s Tim McIntyre. “We’re enabling a circular economy–putting these recycled magnets into a new package that takes advantage of their strengths while addressing a key materials challenge for American industry.”

Nuclear–Radiation effects

With an organ-on-a-chip technology, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are testing the effects of radiation on cells that mimic human respiration. The project, in collaboration with Larry Millet of the University of Tennessee, involves growing a microenvironment of human cell layers, similar to those found in human lungs, in a microfluidic chip, and then exposing the chip to ionizing radiation for subsequent analysis of the cells’ response. While the technology is not new, the team has worked to incorporate and combine unique design elements and architectures, allowing them to collect more data. “For now, we are focusing on building the microenvironments to increase the amount of information we receive per experiment,” said ORNL’s Sandra Davern. “But, in the future, the process could be used to advance biomedical research, and aid in the discovery, testing and development of novel pharmaceuticals to treat disease, as well as mitigating agents suitable for an emergency response to radiological events.” [Contact: Sara Shoemaker, (865) 576-9219;]


Caption: Researchers are using organ-on-a-chip technology to design a microenvironment of human microvascular cells to test how radiation could affect human respiration. These non-irradiated cells have successfully grown and stretched to cover the upper and lower surfaces of the researchers’ new design. Credit: Sandra Davern/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Computing–Reaching rare earths

Scientists from the Critical Materials Institute used the Titan supercomputer and Eos computing cluster at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to analyze designer molecules that could increase the yield of rare earth elements found in bastnaesite, an important mineral for energy and technology applications. To utilize these rare earths–predominantly cerium–bastnaesite must first be separated from the surrounding ore of rocky minerals like calcite. Using quantum and molecular computing programs, researchers identified collector molecules that preferentially bind to metal ions on the bastnaesite surface. Through supercomputing, X-ray diffraction and surface calorimetry, researchers further discoveredthat displacing adsorbed water on bastnaesite and calcite surfaces is critical to collector binding, because it enables ligands to recognize the structural differences between the two minerals. They estimate that designer collectors could improve bastnaesite recovery by 50 percent via a process known as froth flotation, potentially lowering the cost of mining. [Contact: Katie Bethea, (865) 576-8039;]


Caption: Through quantum and molecular computing programs, researchers identified collector molecules that preferentially bind to metal ions on the surface of bastnaesite, a rare earth element that is important for energy and technology applications. The discovery could improve bastnaesite recovery and potentially lower mining costs. Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory/U.S. Dept. of Energy


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