After Hurricane Maria devastated much of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico in 2017, Vázquez, then a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM), found an alternate location for her materials science research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
Now a doctoral student at UT in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Vázquez currently works characterizing metal alloys, especially aluminum-cerium alloys. Cerium is one of seventeen minerals known as rare earth elements. These elements possess unique physical and chemical properties that have made them essential in the manufacture of technological equipment such as magnets, chemical catalysts, and batteries. Currently, cerium is considered a by-product of the rare earth mining industry, and there are only some small applications for the element.
“If we find a bulk application for cerium, it will benefit the whole rare earth industry. Now they won’t have this by-product, and the cost of processing rare earth will go down. Not only will the processing cost go down, but now there will be an additional revenue stream through the sale of cerium” Vázquez noted.