Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview: Prof. Eric Schelter, University of Pennsylvania

(A few weeks back, I posted about rare earth chemistry, and how insufficient domestic supply may hurt new-tech industries in the US.  Prof. Eric Schelter, a Professor of Inorganic and Materials Chemistry, graciously spoke with me about his research) 

SAO: How did you become interested in inorganic / organometallic chemistry, and rare earth / actinide chemistry specifically?

ES: I became interested in inorganic chemistry through interaction with my excellent undergrad mentor, Prof. Rudy Luck at Michigan Tech. Rudy set me up with a synthetic project on a dihydrogen complex of rhenium. This experience was quite formative as Rudy also got me interested in Texas A&M for grad school (he was a postdoc at TAMU). Also, the exposure to dihydrogen complexes introduced me to Los Alamos National Laboratory through the work of Greg Kubas.

In grad school at TAMU I did more synthesis and worked on electronic structure with Kim Dunbar. Working with Kim and her group was a great experience to learn X-ray crystallography, magnetism and electrochemistry. I had an interest in working with actinides so I pursued the LANL postdoc where I learned some uranium and thorium chemistry with Jackie Kiplinger and lanthanide chemistry with Kevin John. My interests in magnetism and f-block chemistry dovetailed nicely for starting my independent career in rare earths and energy science at Penn.

Prof. Eric Schelter (credit: UPenn)

SAO: We've read in National Geographic and Discover about rare earth usage in smartphones, hybrid cars, and military applications.  Can you give examples of other industries that rely heavily on these metals? 

ES: In general, rare earth magnetic materials are very important in many industries. Rare earth (RE) permanent magnets, primarily NdFeB, are used in the wind energy industry in large capacity turbine generators. The permanent magnets are also used in hard drives. Fluorescent lighting depends on phosphor materials that contain REs, especially europium and terbium. Neodymium is also used is lasers. Lanthanum and cerium are important catalysts in FCC [Fluid catalytic cracking] petroleum refining. Erbium is used in amplifiers for fiber optic communication. Yttrium is a critical component of high temperature superconducting materials. Gadolinium has an important use in medicine as a contrast agent in magnetic resonance imaging. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

SAO: Given the supply problem (the US currently does not produce enough rare earths for domestic industry), what is our long-term strategy to obtain more? Do we have a reserve, like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that we can operate from?  Or will new mining and separation techniques be the answer?

ES: There is currently no comprehensive long term strategy to address the US supply crisis and no strategic reserve of REs. A single supplier (Molycorp) of REs exists in the US, but rare earths are not rare - there are reserves of light and heavy rare earths in many places in the lower 48 [states] and in Alaska. There is a great opportunity here for scientists to help meet an important need by improving methods of obtaining pure RE materials.

SAO: How does your research address the rare earth supply problem?

ES: Much of the cost, time, and energy in obtaining rare earths is concentrated at the separations stage. We're working on new separations chemistry from several angles. In work sponsored by the DOE we're developing a new extractant strategy for use in liquid-liquid separations. We expect to contribute to a renewed domestic supply chain by targeting certain high value REs and improving the efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of their separations. We are also exploring fundamental redox chemistry of REs for application to separations.

SAO: Tell me something fun about yourself, your research, or your group.

ES: I am a complete /Lord of the Rings /enthusiast (freak) and am anxiously awaiting the film release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (SAO: Me too!)

Wow, much thanks to Prof. Eric Schelter for his preparation and willingness to be interviewed. Readers, if you (or someone you know) on the cutting-edge of chemistry would like to be interviewed, simply leave a comment here or contact me at

Update (8/11, 8:45AM): Carmen & CEN YouTube Channel recently covered Eric's chemistry

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