Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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Extracting Rare-Earth Elements from E-Waste

A new process, based on a naturally occurring protein, could extract and purify rare-earth elements (REEs) from low-grade sources, outperforming human-made chelators and offering a new avenue toward a more diversified and sustainable REEs sector. Designed by researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in collaboration with Pennsylvania State University and Idaho National Laboratory, the process uses a protein, lanmodulin, that enables a one-step extraction and purification of REEs from complex metal mixtures, including electronic waste and coal byproducts.

“Lanmodulin has several unique and exciting properties,” says Livermore researcher Gauthier Deblonde, lead author of the paper that appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of Inorganic Chemistry. “We were amazed to discover that a natural protein can be so efficient for metal extraction. This protein is the most REEs-selective macromolecule characterized to date and is able to tolerate industrially relevant conditions such as low pH, high temperature, and molar amounts of competing ions.”

Current chemical processes to extract and purify REEs are complex and harmful to the environment. Extracting or recycling REEs from sources like electronic waste and coal byproducts, using natural products like lanmodulin, could be game-changing. REEs are essential for American competitiveness in the clean energy industry because they are used in many devices important to a high-tech economy and national security, including computer components, high-power magnets, wind turbines, mobile phones, solar panels, superconductors, hybrid/electric vehicle batteries, LCD screens, night vision goggles, and tunable microwave resonators.
Contact: Gauthier Deblonde (925) 423-2068 (

Exploring Earth’s Chemical Origins

Massive compressive shearing forces generated by the tidal pull of Jupiter-like planets on their ice-covered moons may form a natural reactor that drives simple amino acids to polymerize into larger compounds. As reported in the July 27, 2020, cover article of Chemical Science, these extreme mechanical forces strongly enhance molecule condensation reactions, opening new possibilities for chemical origins of life on Earth and other rocky planets. “Compressive shearing forces are known to accelerate physical and chemical transformations in solid materials,” says Livermore chemist Brad Steele, the study’s lead author. “However, little is known about how these processes occur, especially for simple prebiotic molecules like amino acids, which can link.” 

The Livermore team focused on glycine, the simplest proteinforming amino acid and a known constituent of astrophysical icy bodies. To probe chemistry under such unusual conditions, the researchers developed a virtual rotational diamond anvil cell (RDAC) to enable rapid computational simulations of mechanically driven chemistry, or mechanochemistry, a relatively new field. RDACs add a shearing component to diamond anvil cell experiments compressing a sample between diamonds to access extremely high pressures (see illustration). 

The researchers determined that above a certain pressure, every shearing simulation predicted the formation of large polymeric molecules from the polypeptide glycylglycine to cyclic molecules and others with chiral centers. “Our study revealed a surprisingly complex chemistry coming from such a simple molecule,” said Livermore scientist Will Kuo, one of the study’s authors. The work points to compressive shearing forces as a potential driver for new and unusual chemistries in organic materials.
Contact: Brad Steele (925) 422-9902 (

Simulating Bay Area Quakes at High Resolution

A Lawrence Livermore team has published new supercomputer simulations of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on the Hayward Fault. Their work, reaching band frequencies of up to 10 Hz, presents the highest-ever resolution ground motion simulations from such an event on this scale. The study, published in the August 11, 2020, edition of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, used the SW4 code developed at the Laboratory. Seismic waves as short as 50 meters were resolved across a region covering the San Francisco Bay Area—from Napa to San Jose and from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Pacific Ocean. Previous simulations lacked the performance and memory to model such high-frequency motions on such a large domain. Calculations were made on the IBM Sierra supercomputer featuring NVIDIA graphics processing units. 

Additional analysis accounted for the effects of soft soils that cover urbanized areas of the Bay Area. Seismologist Arthur Rodgers, lead author of the study, says, “Soft soils deform nonlinearly when subjected to strong shaking. We used a recently developed empirical model to correct ground motions for the effects of soft soils not included in the Sierra calculations. These improved the realism of the simulated shaking intensities.”

High-frequency shaking is critical for evaluating seismic hazards and damage risk to buildings, homes, transportation, and utilities. Supercomputer simulations allow scientists to estimate the time-varying, three-dimensional pattern of shaking for an earthquake of interest. As computing power increases, such simulations will become easier and more accessible to earthquake scientists and engineers. 
Contact: Arthur Rodgers (925) 423-5018 (