Megan O’Connor ’12
We all have them. Cellphones. Tablets. Laptops. But what happens when we don’t want them anymore? Maybe they’re donated. Maybe they’re thrown away.
Megan O’Connor ’12 is trying to give everyone – especially the electronics industry itself – another option.
In August 2017, after earning her Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from Duke University, she co-founded Nth Cycle with Desiree Plata ’03. Plata was her Ph.D. advisor, and the technology Nth Cycle uses to recover the rare earth metals in electronics grew out of O’Connor’s dissertation research.
“When I was getting my Ph.D., I went to a green electronics industry summit at Yale. All the sustainability officers from big companies like Apple and Dell were there,” O’Connor said. “They just kept talking about these huge sustainability challenges – that recycling was too expensive and there’s not enough incentive to do it.”
“And I just thought, there has to be a better, cheaper, more sustainable way,” she added. “The company’s name really stems from the vision that we can recycle these materials an unlimited number of times.”
So she and Plata developed a specialized carbon nanotube filter that allows them to recover neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium from electronics, as well as cobalt from lithium ion batteries.
“Think of an iPhone. Recycling has different tiers. We need someone in front of us to disassemble the phone. They process it by dissolving it in acid and put it into a liquid form,” O’Connor said. “We then take that liquid stream and run it through a series of carbon nanotube filters, applying a specific voltage to recover the valuable metals.”
“This form of carbon is super conductive with very high surface area,” she continued. “We can reclaim a lot of this metal in a very small amount of space.”
If Nth Cycle can help the electronics industry transition to a circular economy, in which materials get used any number of times – rather than the mostly linear economy it has now – the benefits are many.
“Right now, we’re throwing millions of dollars of these metals into landfills, where they have the potential to leach out and damage the environment. Mining and refining these metals on the front end of production is also very hazardous to the environment,” O’Connor said. “And national security is an issue for the U.S. since 90 percent of the rare earth metals our electronics industry uses come from China. Being reliant on foreign sources makes our supply chains unstable. We’re trying to decrease that reliance by providing a new source of metals for the U.S.”
O’Connor credits her drive to change an industry, in part, to her Union education. Laurie Tyler, chemistry professor and chair of the department, inspired O’Connor to stick with her chosen major of chemistry. And the environmental chemistry classes and research she did with Laura MacManus-Spencer, associate professor of chemistry, inspired O’Connor to go into environmental engineering.
“Union prepared me very well for a science career – the lab experience is just unparalleled,” O’Connor said. “Union is one of the reasons I’m here.”
Nth Cycle is part of the Innovation Crossroads program run by the Department of Energy at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It provides early stage funding to promising start-ups in the energy sector.
Emily Jennings ’18 recently joined the company as a full-time mechanical engineer.