Recovery of rare earth elements by nanometric CeO2 embedded into electrospun PVA nanofibres†
Rare earth elements (REEs) are critical raw materials with a wide range of industrial applications. As a result, the recovery of REEs via adsorption from REE-rich matrices, such as water streams from processed electric and electronic waste, has gained increased attention for its simplicity, cost-effectiveness and high efficacy. In this work, the potential of nanometric cerium oxide-based materials as adsorbents for selected REEs is investigated. Ultra-small cerium oxide nanoparticles (CNPs, mean size diameter ≈ 3 nm) were produced via a precipitation-hydrothermal procedure and incorporated into woven–non-woven polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) nanofibres (d ≈ 280 nm) via electrospinning, to a final loading of ≈34 wt%. CNPs, CNP–PVA and the benchmark material CeO2 NM-212 (JRCNM02102, mean size diameter ≈ 28 nm) were tested as adsorbents for aqueous solutions of the REEs Eu3+, Gd3+ and Yb3+ at pH 5.8. Equilibrium adsorption data were interpreted by means of Langmuir and Freundlich data models. The maximum adsorption capacities ranged between 16 and 322 mgREE gCeO2−1, with the larger value found for the adsorption of Yb3+ by CNP. The trend of maximum adsorption capacity was CNPs > NM-212 > CNP–PVA, which was ascribed to different agglomeration and surface area available for adsorption. Langmuir equilibrium constants KL were substantially larger for CNP–PVA, suggesting a potential higher affinity of REEs for CNPs due to a synergistic effect of PVA on adsorption. CNP–PVA were effectively used in repeated adsorption cycles under static and dynamic configurations and retained the vast majority of adsorptive material (>98% of CeO2 retained after 10 adsorption cycles). The small loss was attributed to partial solubilisation of fibre components with change in membrane morphology. The findings of this study pave the way for the application of CNP–PVA nanocomposites in the recovery of strategically important REEs from electrical and electronic waste.