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Geoscientist enjoys critical mineral successes at national lab

The date of: 2022-03-29
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Geoscientist enjoys critical mineral successes at national lab

Christina Lopano relies on experiences at Penn State to shape career extracting rare earth elements from coal waste

Christina Lopano is a research physical scientist at the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh

Christina Lopano, research physical scientist at the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, uses knowledge of how minerals form to create more efficient ways of extracting metals and rare earth elements from coal waste byproducts. Lopano earned her doctorate from Penn State.  Credit: Photo provided. All Rights Reserved.


MARCH 28, 2022

By David Kubarek

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State alumna Christina Lopano works at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), which is one of the three applied research labs among the 17 national labs operated under the Department of Energy (DOE). So, she said, she’s used to seeing the results of her work called upon for application in real-world settings.

But the massive push for extracting rare earth elements (REEs) from mining and energy-based waste products is something even she couldn’t have foreseen.

“It’s very interesting when the research you do becomes such a hot topic,” Lopano said.

Lopano, who earned her doctoral degree in geosciences from Penn State in 2007, has for several years been researching ways to unbind metals used in a range of electronics and other critical devices such as batteries, cellphones and vehicles. REEs — which are part of a larger group of critical minerals — are deemed critical because of the nation’s necessity for them as well as a reliance on foreign powers for importing them. Penn State launched a critical minerals consortium in 2021 and began the Center for Critical Minerals in 2019.

Her research improved technology for recovering REEs by incorporating advanced imaging and spectroscopy techniques coupled with laboratory geochemistry to develop methodologies for removing the elements from coal waste byproducts. It earned Lopano the Secretary of Energy’s Excellence Award.

“These awards are among the highest department honors a federal employee or contractor can receive,” NETL Director Brian Anderson said. “With her background in mineralogy, Dr. Lopano has long been on the leading edge of geoscience research, and her work has made significant contributions in NETL’s efforts to find solutions to clean our water and air, lower the environmental footprint of energy production and help communities in need of new jobs and industries. We’re fortunate to benefit from her expertise. She stands out as a driver of meaningful change.”

Path to Penn State

Lopano grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, hiking trails in places like Bushkill Falls and Jacobsburg Park, and said she was fascinated at the chemistry behind the iron-tinged waters. She saw firsthand the damage caused by acid mine drainage and other contaminants. A collection of rocks she accumulated followed her through life, at the distress of her father.

“I was one of those few rare people who knew early on that I wanted to be a geoscientist,” Lopano said. “I started collecting rocks when I was in the third grade and never outgrew it. My dad carried those boxes of rocks to Virginia Tech and later to Penn State, and then finally to Pittsburgh. They’re still in boxes in my home. He said 'this is the last time I’m moving these rocks.'”

While in high school, she considered going to Penn State but instead took a scholarship opportunity to Virginia Tech. While attending conferences as an undergraduate student, she met Penn State geoscientists Susan Brantley and Peter Heaney.

That meeting led her to Penn State for her graduate education. Heaney advised Lopano starting out for her master’s degree, which quickly morphed into a doctoral degree when the scope of her research on manganese oxides became more involved. Manganese oxides are an inelegant yet important mineral in the soil systems, especially for their ability to incorporate heavy or trace metals into their crystal structure. Understanding how these minerals form is also relevant to REE recovery.

While working on her doctoral research, Lopano became accustomed to using equipment at Penn State and national labs in her research.

“During that time, I had my first experience using a synchrotron, which was at Brookhaven National Laboratory,” Lopano said. “Peter encouraged me to write the proposals and get beam time.”

‘The impact this could have’

After earning her doctorate, Lopano worked for a few years as a mineralogist at a consulting firm in Pittsburgh before landing the job at NETL, where she’s been for about 10 years.

She’s worked for years in REE research but recently it’s become something that those working outside of specialized research circles are aware of.

“It’s interesting to see that what I do is now talked about all over the place,” Lopano said. “My brother is an industrial designer. He designs tools so he knows all about batteries, and he’s curious about our solutions for elements like lithium.”

Since she works at an applied research lab, Lopano is always thinking about the application for the research, she said. Often, they’re exploring the fundamental research that could aid in a pressing societal problem. Or they’re looking for gaps in the science where they can contribute, or encouraging the DOE to fund external research such as the $1.2 million research project that’s ongoing at Penn State.

“Even if it’s more fundamental research, I need to be thinking about why this is important,” Lopano said. “I need to always be thinking about the impact this could have in the real world. That’s something about my career that’s always appealed to me.”

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