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Lukman Solola

College: Brooklyn College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Elementary Exploration

Dysprosium, europium, neodymium, terbium, yttrium: The names of these rare-earth elements may not be familiar, but they are in critically short supply when they are needed to produce cellphones, electronic equipment and clean energy products like wind turbines, electric vehicles, photovoltaic thin-film solar cells and fluorescent lights.

Despite the term “rare earths,” these and a dozen similar metallic elements actually are not rare. Some are as common as copper. But typically they are dispersed in other ores, rather than being concentrated, as gold is in nuggets or veins. Ninety-five percent of the world’s production is in China, although many countries mine them, including the United States.

Lukman Solola (Brooklyn College, B.S. in chemistry, 2012), now in a chemistry doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, is looking for ways to chemically separate the lanthanide group of these elements from the ores that contain them.

He now has the support of a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This three-year, $126,000 grant is the most prestigious award for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“The United States has lanthanide ores, but separation is tricky,” he says. “The way they are separated now is by crushing the rocks, roasting them, putting them in a slurry and repeatedly passing them through chemicals to selectively separate the elements you’re looking for. Those chemicals are not environmentally friendly, so it is difficult to exploit the resources we have here, because we have a vibrant environmentally friendly policy.”

China, however, has built a near monopoly by paying far less attention to the environmental damage that the byproducts of rare-earth extraction can leave behind.

Solola hopes for a safer and more elegant solution utilizing ligands, which are ions or functional groups of molecules that bind to metal atoms.

“We can select for the ligands we want by changing their oxidation state. When they are oxidized, they will have slightly different chemical behaviors compared to other elements close to them, so it will be easier to separate them to get them out of the slurry,” he says.

He hastens to add that in his laboratory he does not deal with rocks, just reagents and compounds in this search for basic science. His mentor is Eric J. Schelter, an assistant professor of inorganic and materials chemistry.

Solola was born in Nigeria and moved to Brooklyn about six years ago, after finishing high school. He gravitated to Brooklyn College. “It wasn’t too big, it wasn’t too small, and the academics were top notch,” he says.

As an undergraduate, most of his research was in biochemistry. One project, which ran for two years, involved using chrome azurol S (CAS) assay to measure iron uptake by Mycobacteria smegmatis, a fast-growing bacterium that does not cause illness and is commonly used for laboratory research.

In the summer of 2011, he interned at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, looking at the role of the NHE6 and NHE9 sodium-hydrogen exchangers in membrane-protein trafficking.

And in the summer of 2010, he worked on breast cancer vaccines at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. There, he investigated whether triggering an immune response to the polio vaccine, which most people received as children, could fight breast cancer; to do this, he delivered non-infective portions of polio virus genes into cancer cells via weakened Listeria bacteria.

It was a high school chemistry teacher who motivated Solola to pursue chemistry. Now, he volunteers at a Philadelphia high school, helping to teach 11th- and 12th-grade chemistry.

“We collaborate and develop suitable labs and sometimes bring kids here to Penn, so they can see what it feels like to be in a university lab,” he says. “They come mostly from underprivileged in underrepresented groups. We are trying to get them much more interested in science. It would be great to inspire some of my students to go into science, but, ultimately, I aspire to make them see the world from a different perspective.