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Widener School of Engineering Awarded Exclusive Grant from National Science Foundation

Dipendu Saha, chemical engineering, engineering

Dr. Dipendu Saha, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Chester, Pa. – The National Science Foundation has awarded Dr. Dipendu Saha in the School of Engineering at Widener University a two-year grant of $100,000 to develop a novel material that will selectively recover two rare-earth elements, neodymium and dysprosium. Saha, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, received the Early-Concepts Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant, an exclusive award given only to projects with radically different approaches that demonstrate potential for a high-risk, high pay off and results that can be transformative in nature.

“Rare-earth elements are critical components found in tools and devices that we use daily, such as computer hard drives, green technology and televisions,” said Saha. “Continued access to these elements, however, is uncertain and could lead to manufacturing and economic disruptions. With this grant we will research an innovative strategy using a novel approach to recover these precious metals from products at the end of their useful lives.”

Rare earth elements are a group of chemically similar metallic elements found in the earth’s crust. These elements are used in a number of important applications such as electronics, cathode ray tubes, optical devices, permanent magnets, power sources and various military applications. While they are relatively abundant in the earth's crust, they are difficult to extract in sufficient amounts as they are not concentrated into large deposits and can often be mixed with other metals making them hard to separate.

Additionally, more than 90 percent of the world's supply of these metals is controlled by foreign countries. Recent export restrictions have led to an interrupted supply of the metals to the United States, and raised concerns about their continued use in military and energy capacities.

“This research is critical for two reasons. First, development of a new tool will alleviate the U.S. dependency on foreign countries and will help establish economic independence on the valued rare-earth elements, which will support their continued use in the defense and scientific sectors. Second, a more efficient and environmentally benign tool is greatly needed to replace the existing outdated and environmentally hazardous technology,” said Saha.

“I want to extend my congratulations to Dr. Saha and the School of Engineering on receiving this prestigious award,” said Widener President Julie E. Wollman. “Attaining an EAGER grant that supports innovative science research underscores Widener’s commitment to scholarship that solves real world problems. Similarly, the innovative research approach designed by Dr. Saha will serve as a model to our students, to envision bold and different solutions to scientific challenges both in and out of the classroom.” 

The grant will support student research for undergraduate and graduate engineering students. The research will also be integrated into the engineering curriculum. Over the next two years, Saha and his team of student researchers will explore a new recovery method for two specific rare-earth elements through the use of DNA grafted mesoporous carbons. Currently, rare-earth elements are recovered using solvents. Solvent extraction, however, can be hazardous, expensive, time and labor intensive, and ineffective when the metals are found in low concentration. 

“We anticipate that this project will be successful and that upon completion a new strategy of recovering rare-earth elements can be discovered and implemented,” Saha added.

Saha anticipates the outcome to result in a series of highly adjustable and stable DNA grafted carbons that can substantially enhance the uptake and recovery of neodymium and dysprosium compared to currently available methods. Additionally, he anticipates that the type of materials that will be invented over the course of the project will also open new avenues and possibilities in other areas such as chemical separations. 

Funding for the research comes from the National Science Foundation’s Early-Concepts Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program (1837202).

Widener University is a private, metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, leadership development and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener comprises seven schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees. Visit the university website, http://www.widener.edu/