Recycling your old technology devices is great for the environment already… Taking them to a certified recycler is even better. But what if ongoing researches were about to make IT equipment disposal even more eco-friendly?


E-waste recycling facility

That’s what researchers like William Bonificio from Harvard University and Eric Schelter from University of Pennsylvania are working on right now, and they found a solution – bacteria.

Your technology contains precious metals, also called rare earth elements. They are a scarce and necessary component of all of our technology devices. Scarce is a major problem, as we are producing and consuming more and more technology. The other problem is that China is the main exporter of those metals and prices are very high… making our technology more expensive too.


The good news is, earth elements can be used, and reused almost indefinitely.

“You never burn out the rare earths, it’s not like they go bad after ten uses. They are just elements, so we need to figure out smarter ways to reuse them,” says Eric Schelter, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

What are Rare Earths Elements exactly?

National Geographic explains that “rare Earths are a collection of about 16 elements that possess unique properties necessary for everything from light bulbs to smart phones, weapons systems to alternative energy. The metals are mixed together in different ratios depending on their application.”

For example, europium and terbium, two rare earths, enable your smart phone screen to be touch-sensitive and glow with colors.

Those precious metals are in a lot of devices but in very small quantities, which makes them very hard to separate for the rest of the waste.

Rare Earth Elements

Rare Earth Elements

At least, that’s what we thought until recently…


New biological solutions

Marion Emmert, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, specializes in automobile engine recycling. By using procedures that manufacturers typically avoid, such as heat and exposure to acid, Emmert set up a way to retrieve rare earths in a simple and cost-effective way.

William Bonificio, also found a solution to recycle precious metals. He found out that the surfaces of bacteria covered with negatively-charged molecules attract the rare earths’ positive charge when in solution. By adjusting the solution’s pH, Bonificio managed to detach rare earths from the bacteria and then wash them out of solution.

The only problem Emmert and Bonificio encountered is to separate every rare earth element from each other. Right now, they are recycling a mixture of precious metals.

Separation of rare earth elements

Turns out, Eric Schelter and his researchers found a way to separate each rare earth element out of a mixture. They synthesized a three-armed molecule, called a tripodal ligand, enabling the isolation of every element. They can then be purified back to their original state and reused.

Rare Earth Salts, a Nebraskan recycling company, is already using the bacteria technique. The company built a commercial demonstration plant that will be producing five high purity rare earths from compact fluorescent bulbs by the end of 2016.

The future of rare earths recovering is definitely promising, and soon we’ll probably be able to put an entire device through a grinder and get precious metals back.


At ICT, we’re all for anything that keeps electronics out of landfills. That’s why we tailor our electronics recycling solutions to fit each company’s unique needs.
At ICT, transparency is key. Every technological device is processed by R2 certified staff in the ICT facility in the Boston area. ICT knows how important trust is and values its relationships with its customers. ICT cares about preserving our planet and helps companies all over the country to recycle E-Waste and protect their data.

Author Bio: Audrey Adam is the marketing manager at ICT. She has a background in journalism and blog writing.

Audrey Adan - HeadshotSource:

National Geographic

Photo credits: Wikipedia Commons. Creative Commons License.



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