September 16, 2020
Journal Article

Microbe Encapsulation for Selective Rare-Earth Recovery from Electronic Waste Leachates

Elliot Chang
Brewer Brewer
Harris Mason
David Reed
Congwang Ye
William Hynes
Laura Lammers
Dan Park
Yongqin Jiao
April Sawvel


Rare earth elements (REEs) are indispensable components of many green technologies and of increasing demand globally. However, refining REEs from raw materials using current technologies is energy intensive and enviromentally damaging. Here, we describe the development of a novel biosorption-based flow-through process for selective REE recovery from electronic wastes. An Escherichia coli strain previously engineered to display lanthanide-binding tags on the cell surface was encapsulated within a permeable polyethylene glycol diacrylate (PEGDA) hydrogel at high cell density using an emulsion process. This microbe bead adsorbent contained a homogenous distribution of cells whose surface functional groups remained accessible and effective for selective REE adsorption. The microbe beads were packed into fixed-bed columns, and breakthrough experiments demonstrated effective Nd extraction at a flow velocity of up to 3 m/h at pH 4–6. The microbe bead columns were stable for reuse, retaining 85% of the adsorption capacity after nine consecutive adsorption/desorption cycles. A bench-scale breakthrough curve with a NdFeB magnet leachate revealed a two-bed volume increase in breakthrough points for REEs compared to non-REE impurities and 97% REE purity of the adsorbed fraction upon breakthrough. These results demonstrate that the microbe beads are capable of repeatedly separating REEs from non-REE metals in a column system, paving the way for a biomass-based REE recovery system.

Revised: September 16, 2020 | Published: December 3, 2019


Brewer B., A. Dohnalkova, V. Shutthanandan, L. Kovarik, E. Chang, A.M. Sawvel, and H.E. Mason, et al. 2019. "Microbe Encapsulation for Selective Rare-Earth Recovery from Electronic Waste Leachates." Environmental Science & Technology 53, no. 23:13888-13897. PNNL-SA-156048. doi:10.1021/acs.est.9b04608