Printed on: November 19, 2013

INL scientists tackling critical material problem


Tedd Lister's nearly 30-year passion for guitars led him to a 1960 Hi-Fi Amplifier in need of a little repair.

The Idaho National Laboratory scientist rewired the circuits to match that of a guitar amplifier and tested the sound. It worked.

That was about six years ago. He's built five since -- a man can only have so many amplifiers before it becomes a hazard.

This may not be an everyday hobby for most, but it seemed natural for Lister, both a guitar and science enthusiast.

"Basically, I looked on the Internet to see if I could find anything interesting," Lister said. "I saw the (guitar circuit wiring) and said, 'Hey, I can do that.' "

In the past five months, Lister has taken on another electronic challenge, this time at work. He is recycling rare earth metals and critical materials from cellphones and tablets by using electricity to dissolve them.

At least, that's the end goal.

Lister is one of about 20 lab researchers participating in the Critical Materials Institute, established to develop a solution to domestic shortages of rare earth metals and other critical materials used in products such as cellphones and wind turbines. These materials include dysprosium, terbium, europium and neodymium.

The United States holds about 13 million tons of rare earth metals, compared with the 55 million tons -- about half of the world's reserves -- held by China, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. China produces more than 90 percent of the world's supply of rare earth metals but has been trying to curb its exports for several years because its leaders say it's unsustainable, according to a July 2012 New York Times article.

The institute is one of five Energy Innovation Hubs developed by the Department of Energy since 2010. The team of researchers, drawn from academia, four national laboratories and the private sector, will receive up to $120 million in funding over five years from the DOE.

"There should be better ways to recycle (electronics)," Lister said. "We shouldn't be getting rid of electronic waste."

Right now, Lister is subjecting only the metals -- such as gold, copper and palladium -- to a dissolving solution and electricity, not the phones or tablets. Eventually, those, too, will be subject to the process. At that point, Lister will be able to see whether his science can remove the metals from the phone or tablet.

"That's when we'll find out if there's problems with our science," Lister said.

In two or three years, Lister will subject rechargeable batteries to a similar solution.

This idea, among many others Lister has produced while at the lab, is one of the reasons Lister's manager, Mike McIlwain, said he is the "future of the lab."

"He's quiet, but he's innovative," McIlwain said. "He's an outstanding midcareer person."

Idaho National Laboratory reporter Alex Stuckey can be reached at 542-6755.