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From tinkerer to scientist

#youngscientists: Interview with Wadih Rassy, project assistant and PhD student

Wadih Rassy is a project assistant at the IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems and works in the REEgain project, which is a research project dealing with a new environmentally friendly and sustainable recycling method to recover rare earths with the help of microorganisms. In the interview, he talks about the new technology for recovering these special metals, his work processes in the laboratory and his childhood dream of becoming a scientist.

#youngscientists: Interview with Wadih Rassy, project assistant and PhD student

What is the specific goal of the “REEgain” research project?

The project is about the biological recovery of so-called rare earths, i.e., REE – Rare Earth Elements, from pulverised electronic parts and wastewater. Mobile phones, computers and cameras would not work without rare earth elements. However, the conventional extraction of the metals is costly and environmentally harmful. In our research project at IMC Krems in cooperation with the Czech Academy of Sciences, Danube University Krems and Karl Landsteiner Privatuniversität, we have set ourselves the goal of recycling rare earths from electronic waste without any environmental damage using bacteria and algae. This pioneering project is made possible by EU funding from the “European Regional Development Fund” as part of the “InterReg Austria – Czech Republic” programme.

What is the content of the IMC Krems work package?

In our work package we are responsible for the screening of various microorganisms and the analytical measurement regarding the release of REEs. The focus is on developing a process that is as simple as possible, in the interest of easy raw material recycling.

How could we imagine your research work? 

I cultivate microorganisms and bring them into contact with rare earths. The screening is based on the separation and subsequent measurement of biomass and supernatant for elemental content and thus uptake efficiency. For this purpose, we work with both mesophilic and extremophilic organisms – these are microorganisms, which either prefer or require very harmless or extreme environmental conditions.

What makes this project unique?

We are surrounded by electronic devices and technology and therefore need to push the development to recover raw materials from obsolete or defective technology. In times of new knowledge about climate change and the need for recycling processes, I think this is self-evident. Our goal is to recycle rare earths from electronic waste without any environmental damage using bacteria and algae. Regional companies will benefit from this new technology.

What results are expected in the project?

There are already many publications on uptake and “bioleaching” – that is the metal extraction through biological-chemical processes – of lanthanides, certain rare earth metals. However, there is a lack of more precise data and application possibilities for the development of a recycling process for use by waste recyclers. We expect a step in the right direction to minimise problems due to raw material chain insufficiencies and environmental pollution from raw material procurement.

The REEgain project will be presented at the World Expo 2020 in Dubai. What can visitors expect?

From October 2021 to March 2022, innovations “Made in Austria”, including our REEgain project, will be presented at Expo 2020 in Dubai. At the iLab in the Austria Pavilion, selected innovations that reflect Austrian inventiveness will be presented digitally in videos and also physically through exhibits. They show how the ingenuity of companies and scientists helps to shape the future in a positive and sustainable way.

Why did you decide to study biotechnology?

I have always been interested in natural sciences – being a scientist has been my dream since I was very young. After an assignment abroad, I originally enrolled in pharmacy at the University of Vienna but found that I could not pursue my passion for research here. In my “Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology” degree programme at IMC Krems, I knew from the first moment that I had made the right decision.

How did the idea for your PhD study come about?

I am doing my PhD in Technical Chemistry at TU Wien and I am employed as a research assistant at the IMC Krems. The idea didn’t just come about but was a logical conclusion to my dream of gaining a foothold in research. My dissertation deals with the same topic as the REEgain project, but without the technological orientation. I use chemical decomposition for the recycling of electronic waste, or known concentrations of lanthanides, which can then be further separated with the help of microorganisms in the best case.

What do you find exciting about research work? 

Curiosity has always driven me – I always wanted to find out how things around me work and develop methods to do so. In my family, I was known as a “tinkerer” from an early age. If something was broken, I fixed it. Even if it worked, I took it apart to understand how it worked. The only thing that has changed since I was a kid is the scale. I still try to understand the things I research... Probably with a little more system behind it.

About Wadih Rassy 

Wadih Rassy, MSc. (33) is a research assistant at the Department of Life Sciences at IMC Krems. He originally comes from Baden near Vienna. While studying Pharmacy at the University of Vienna, he changed to IMC Krems and completed his bachelor’s degree in 2016 and his master’s degree in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology in 2019. He completed his internships at Sultan Quaboos University Muscat, Oman, and at IMC Krems. Since 2019, he has been enrolled in a doctoral programme in Technical Chemistry at TU Wien.

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