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Recycling of rare earth elements; student of Jacobs University Bremen made it to the finals of ‘Jugend forscht’, the German youth science competition

Jan Felix Schuster, student at Jacobs University, made it to the finals of 'Jugend forscht' (Source: Jacobs University)


May 6, 2019

To make it to the final was his goal. "I'm really happy that it worked out," says Jan Felix Schuster. The 19-year-old qualified for the national finals of the youth competition ‘Jugend forscht’ in Chemnitz from 16 to 19 May. He is the state champion of Bremen in the field of chemistry, and participating is more important than winning for him. "Getting to know the other projects and making new contacts is what I enjoy most about 'Jugend forscht'”.

The recycling of rare earth elements, a group of chemical elements, has been fascinating him ever since he was a student at the Buchholzer Gymnasium am Kattenberge. "Recycling them is a great challenge. Until now, there was no process that worked out." He experimented in vain for two years. It was only at Jacobs University Bremen in Professor Ulrich Kortz's research laboratory that he found a way to recover neodymium, a metal used in hard disk magnets, which in turn are used in electric motors, wind turbine generators, computers and smartphones.

The recycling of rare earth metals has fascinated Jan Felix Schuster ever since he was a student at high school (Source: Jacobs University)

In this process, the magnet is dissolved and then the free neodymium ions are reversibly incorporated in an inorganic, donut-shaped host molecule (a so-called polyoxometalate) by means of supramolecular interactions, i.e. neodymium can be released again. "The biggest breakthrough in recent weeks has been to develop a catalytic cycle, so that the inorganic host molecule can be used over and over again," said Jan, who studies chemistry (BSc) in his first year and also conducts research in the laboratory of Prof. Ulrich Kortz under the supervision of an experienced doctoral student. Jan prefers to spend his free time with Freerunning and Parkour, and he also coaches a group of children in Buchholz.


The reason why Jan chose to study at Jacobs University is due to his participation in the MINTernational Workshop in Physics and Chemistry, which the international university holds every year for high school students from the Bremen region. His school teacher, Dr. Brigitte Muntermann, had registered him. "I didn't even know Jacobs University before." Jan liked the atmosphere on campus and the course content so much that he later applied for BSc studies. "It was very important for me to be able to do research in the laboratory very early on, fully independently of the mandatory coursework. Now Jan Felix Schuster hopes that the referees at ‘Jugend forscht’ like his project, and then the plan is to publish the recycling process in a scientific journal together with Professor Kortz, or even better, to upscale and commercialize the process, possibly together with an industry partner. "That would be a dream come true."