Alumni Profile: Megan O'Connor
CEE PhD graduate Megan O'Connor's startup recycles rare earth and specialty elements from used electronic devices
By Deepti Agnihotri
- Megan O'Connor earned a PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Duke in 2017
- She was chosen by Forbes as a "30 Under 30" in Energy, for the year 2019
- She founded Nth Cycle, a company that uses her technology to electrochemically recycle rare metals from different electronic devices and manufacturing waste streams
- O'Connor also received support from Innovation Crossroads, an entrepreneurial research and development program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Q&A: Megan O'Connor
What does your current work entail?
When I graduated in September 2017, I became a part-time research associate lab and part-time entrepreneur. My thesis work at Duke that inspired my company involved identifying strategies to enable a circular economy in the electronics industry, where we can recycle and reuse all the materials that go into our everyday electronic products.
Once I was able to identify strategies, I noticed that the biggest need for technological development was in end-of-life recycling. That's when I developed this technology that can electrochemically recycle rare earths and specialty elements.
Duke prepared me well for pursuing a startup.
That's what the company spin-off is—using this technology and applying it to the electronics and semiconductor industries to generate a secondary source of metals for these markets.
My company is called Nth Cycle and after graduation I spent six months applying to small business funding sources, including Innovation Crossroads, which is an accelerator program at Oak Ridge National Lab for very early stage startups in the energy sector.
This program was designed to give startups the space, time, funding and mentorship to achieve the large technical milestones needed to reach commercialization and be successful. It's a really great opportunity and I'm really excited that I get to be a part of it for the next two years.
How was your experience getting involved with Innovation Crossroads?
It's been fascinating to meet all the different applicants who have developed technologies to make an impact in the energy sector as well as the judges who will soon be our mentors in the program.
We had people from many different sectors come, including venture capitalists, technical experts from Oak Ridge National Lab and experienced individuals from industry. It was great getting feedback from all those different parties and to have the validation that what we're doing is needed.
How did Duke help you get ready for your current work?
One of the reasons I chose environmental engineering at Duke was because it's such a diverse program. You can find people with backgrounds in biology, engineering, chemistry, material science and more. I come from a chemistry background, so I really struggled with some of the engineering classes in the beginning. Having that diverse group of people to learn from was really helpful in getting me where I am today.
What was your favorite part about Duke?
My favorite part about Duke was probably the department itself. I felt like I was at home when I was at Duke—it always felt like you were part of this big, great community that would always be there to support you. I've met many Duke alumni in my time and even one alum at Oak Ridge National Lab, whom I'll be working with for Innovation Crossroads.
Finding all these people that are still here to support you—it's great knowing we have this huge network of support. You feel that on campus as well as off campus.
What advice do you have for people who want to enter your profession?
Stick with what you're doing. You have to accept your failures, learn from them and use them to better yourself and whatever you're working on. You're going to fail a lot and it's going to be really tough, especially in a PhD program where you're expected to be constantly succeeding and publishing.
With any high-risk project, you always have this thought in your head that you'll never graduate, but I would just say keep going, persist and eventually you'll reach your goal and you'll be happy that you kept going.
Tell me about an experience where you faced a challenge that you didn't necessarily see coming – How did you deal with it?
I was working on a completely different project for the first two years of my graduate work and ended up not wanting to pursue that for my dissertation.
One of the reasons I chose environmental engineering at Duke was because it's such a diverse program. You can find people with backgrounds in biology, engineering, chemistry, material science and more.
I switched projects, and my advisor, Desiree Plata, was really hesitant to even allow me to do this project because she knew that it was very high-risk. We didn't know if it would ever work or if I would ever graduate in the five-year timeframe that I was aiming for.
I'm on my third or fourth prototype now, and I didn't get it to work until the last six months of my dissertation. Going through all those experiments, year after year, the system failed over and over again. Getting through that was mentally challenging, but I'm so glad that I did it.
Can you tell me more about your prototypes?
It's an electrochemical recycling device. At a basic level we're using a similar technique to electrowinning. That's a technique where you apply a voltage to a large metal cathode, which extracts the metal that then plates onto that cathode. The disadvantage to that method is that the cathodes used are very large, so they take up a lot of space, which is very impractical for the low concentrations of rare earth metals that we're targeting.
To overcome that, we came up with a novel cathode that is a carbon nanotube filter with a very high surface area and is very conductive. This allows us to be able to scale the process of electrowinning down to target these very low concentration rare earth metals.
For our system, we apply a voltage to those carbon nanotube filters; a very specific voltage that selects for a metal that is then plated onto the surface through reduction. We can actually separate the metals based on their differences in reduction potential. We use that selectivity combined with their differences in hydroxide stabilities to separate the metals, which makes them more valuable for reuse in advanced manufacturing.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think Duke is a really great program that prepared me well for pursuing a startup. I felt like the community was very innovative, and it pushed me to this new level that I never thought I could reach on my own.
I'm really appreciative of the program in general and it giving me the knowledge I needed to get me where I am today. I'm excited to be in this new program called Innovation Crossroads and I wouldn't be here without Desiree or the Duke program. I'm very grateful.