In view of continuing environmental damage and climate change, demand for eco-friendly, carbon-neutral technologies for use in industry is higher than ever. And REEgain, a cross-border research project currently being implemented by Austrian and Czech researchers, is looking at ways of recycling rare earth elements without generating hazardous waste. The four-year initiative has received funding from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) under the Interreg Austria-Czech Republic (Interreg V-A AT-CZ) programme.
The REEgain project is exploring ways of using living organisms to recycle waste, as an alternative to dangerous chemicals. “This biological approach to recycling builds on the ability of microorganisms to absorb rare earth elements from their surroundings. To do this, e-waste is precipitated and the resulting watery solution is fermented using bacteria, fungi or algae, which grow and achieve a high cell density, absorbing the rare earths in the process. The biomass produced in this process is then fractionated, which means that the cells are broken up and the fragments separated from the cell contents,” explains project manager Dominik Schild. These complex tasks have been split between the project partners. The participating institutions are IMC Krems, the Czech Academy of Sciences in Třeboň, Danube University Krems and Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences.
Sustainable right down to the residues
Specialised fermentation techniques such as co-cultivation of organisms are employed in the recycling process. As opposed to conventional approaches, which involve single organisms, this form of recycling uses combinations of organisms whose joint capabilities deliver additional advantages. “You can compare this process with symbiosis in nature. We cultivate the organisms in such a way that we end up not with one organism, but several different ones that grow alongside one other. Our new technology capitalises on this specific potential – the main advantage is that it’s environmentally friendly and sustainable, which opens up the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint. Because the residue is purely organic material that can simply decompose, and the organisms have not been genetically modified, the residue can even be used as fertiliser or an additive for animal feed,” Schild points out.
In order to ensure that the regional economy reaps practical benefits from the scientific findings, local waste management and recycling companies are also involved in the project. They play a part in the formulation of the research topics, as well as supplying the electronic waste.
About Dominik Schild
Dominik Schild grew up and went to school in Krems. After finishing his degree in technical chemistry at TU Wien, he worked as a fermentation process engineer at Boehringer Ingelheim in the Austrian capital.
He moved to IMC Krems in 2007 and is a professor in the Department of Life Sciences, where he specialises in bioprocess engineering. This research focus includes environmental projects such as REEgain, as well as a partnership with the Austrian Red Cross to produce therapeutic proteins for blood tests.