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ORNL Undergraduate Research Profile: Jonathan Harter

Reuse and Recycle: CCI participant extracts rare earth magnets from computer hard drives


ORNL Intern Jonathan Harter

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Jonathan Harter, a Community College Internship Program participant, contributed to research related to the extraction and reuse of rare earth magnets from hard disk drives.

Though newer technologies are quick to replace older models, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) recognize the value of recycling older equipment. More specifically, they are interested in hard disk drives, computer data storage devices that contain the rare earth magnet Neodymium Iron Boron. These powerful magnets are not produced in the United States, so the extraction and reuse of the current supply is critical.

Jonathan Harter, an electrical engineering technology student at Pellissippi State Community College, joined this initiative at ORNL through the Community College Internship (CCI) Program. The CCI Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists, provides community college students opportunities to experience technical research at national laboratories.

Alongside Roger Kisner and Tim McIntyre of the Electrical and Electronics Research Division, Harter researched methods to retrieve and recycle magnets from the hard disk drives. Computer software played an important role in nearly every task. His regular activities involved data accumulation, robotic controls, graphical coding, computer programming and machine development.

“The purpose of my research is to develop a new supply of rare earth materials to reduce a supply risk from foreign nations,” Harter explained. “By removing U.S. dependence on foreign nations, we can better control our supply levels. A hard disk drive recycling program will have much more than a political impact, though. It will also encourage the electronics industry to be more resourceful with their products and reduce large contributions to landfills.”

According to Harter, the group faced new challenges every day because previous research on the subject is limited. He enjoyed the opportunity to hear alternative ideas and explore new methods with other members of his group. In this learning process, he honed his computer programming and coding skills.

While Harter’s immediate goal is to complete his bachelor’s degree, he plans to pursue a doctoral degree in electrical engineering, focusing specifically on magnets or electric motors. Regardless of his academic status, he hopes to continue to contribute to meaningful research.

“The CCI Program has been greatly beneficial to me,” Harter said. “My computer skills, communication skills and research and development knowledge have improved through this internship, and I plan to apply my experiences to my future career.”

The CCI Program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.