New ChemE prof uses microwaves to make mining more sustainable

Professor Erin Bobicki (MSE, ChemE) is working to reduce the environmental impact of mining and mineral processing — and her secret weapon is a common household appliance.

“I basically did my PhD by putting rocks in a microwave,” she says. “I drilled a hole in it and put a small reactor vessel inside.”

While this should definitely be left to the professionals, her hacker’s approach is grounded in sound science. Mineral processing is all about separating valuable metals such as nickel, copper and zinc from the low-value minerals — known as gangue — that make up most of the ore. Many high-value compounds respond differently to microwaves than less valuable ones.

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