EDITOR: | June 3rd, 2013 | 8 Comments

Rare earth re-cycling starting to get momentum

| June 03, 2013 | 8 Comments

An academic journal has joined the growing discussion on recycling rare earth metals. In 2011 only 1% of REE metals contained in old equipment was actually retrieved, but the article makes the point that with more recycling, the environmental challenges involved in mining and processing rare earths would be less challenging.

The case is argued in the Journal of Cleaner Production, edited by Donald Huisingh, a senior scientist at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. The article has been compiled by a team at Belgium’s University of Leuven.

The subject of REE recycling seems to be hotting up. As reported here, two months ago Germany’s Environment Minister, Peter Altmaier, was calling for greater recycling so the country could be less dependent on imports of mined metals. (With Japan aiming to provide 50% of its REE supply by 2030, this is clearly going to be a space to watch.) Altmaier noted that, while companies were already recycling some electronics, they were mainly targeting gold and ignoring others. At the same press conference, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker complained: ,“We are throwing away 99 percent of the rare earths we’re using.”

The Journal of Cleaner Production makes the point that, while new mines are being opened and some revived, many countries will still have no supplies from their own territory and these nations may have to rely more on recycling of REE from pre-consumer scrap, industrial residues and REE-containing end-of-life products. As the abstract notes: “REE recycling is also recommended in view of the so-called ‘balance problem‘. For instance, primary mining of REE ores for neodymium generates an excess of the more abundant elements, lanthanum and cerium. Therefore, recycling of neodymium can reduce the total amount of REE ores that need to be extracted“. This point, we would add, has some cogency considering the prospects for surpluses of the two light REE.

The article’s authors are unequivocal considering that so little REE are being recycled: “A drastic improvement in the recycling of REEs is, therefore, an absolute necessity. This can only be realized by developing efficient, fully integrated recycling routes“.

Not only would this reduce the supply risks, it would lessen the world’s dependence on REE mining with new mines often involving environmental issues.

Meanwhile, Chemistry World, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in Cambridge, England, is also arguing that recycling old magnets for REE could solve an urgent raw material problem in the electronics industry. The journal refers to work at the University of Leuven using ionic liquids to separate neodymium and samarium from other metals used in permanent rare earth magnets such as iron, manganese and cobalt. It quotes the project leader, Keon Binnemans, thus: “These other elements – including iron, cobalt, manganese, copper and zinc – are extracted into the ionic-liquid phase, while the rare-earth metals are left behind in the aqueous phase”. Binnemans figures that the world could supply 20% of its REE needs by recycling.

The journal argues that the usefulness of neodymium and samarium in the microelectronics industry is outweighed only by lack of availability.

Mitsubishi Electrical is one company that committed to helping Japan to meet the 50% recycling target. The huge plastics recycling business, Green Cycle Systems Corporation has since 2012 been receiving end-of-life cycle products that contain rare earth magnets not only from Hyper Cycle Systems Corporation, but also from other recycling plants outside the Mitsubishi Electric Group since 2012.

The company states: “Recovered rare earth magnets are also re-used in Mitsubishi Electric products by way of magnet manufacturers. As with large-scale, high-purity plastic recycling, we plan on taking the lead in establishing a resource recycling system. Furthermore, we will work to develop new technologies for creating recovery equipment that can remove rare earth resources from the hard disk drives of end-of-lifecycle laptop computers and other products.”

And last month we heard about a new European initiative. C-Tech Innovation Ltd will lead the consortium a which also includes The University of Birmingham, Stena Technoworld AB, ACREO Swedish ICT AB, Leitat Technological Centre, OptiSort AB, Chalmers Industriteknik,  Magneti Ljubljana and Kolektor Magnet Technology GmbH. The group plans to develop processes for the recovery and recycling of neodymium-iron-boron magnets from a range of waste electronic and electrical equipment.

According to one technical journal explaining the development, very significant is that the fact that the consortium is aiming to recover material in a form that can easily re-enter the primary magnet manufacturing production route, so providing large energy savings and reduced production costs for European manufacturers.

The work is being financed by the Seventh European Framework Programme for research and technological development.



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  • lea


    June 3, 2013 - 4:10 PM

  • GoBucks

    A skeptic? Refreshing.

    Since the recycling processes are for the most part either in infancy or conceptual, it’s a little early to claim victory.

    Recycling–or even re-using–neo magnets is the most straightforward scenario.

    But other electronics parts? Good luck. Many are proprietary. It’s not at all easy to ID the ones with rare earths in them. So how can you ‘assay’ them to know if the process will pay for itself?

    June 3, 2013 - 5:59 PM

    • Robin Bromby

      Who claimed victory? All the post did was say that the discussion about recycling was starting to get momentum. Or should we not raise matters for discussion?

      June 3, 2013 - 6:15 PM

  • GoBucks

    If I irritated you, sorry about that.

    Looks like a discussion is in progress.

    My point is that we may be trading one challenge for an even bigger one. Since the processes don’t exist yet, how can we say one way or the other?

    June 4, 2013 - 7:18 PM

  • crap

    ha hahaha@ Robin Bromby…you really believe that people above can do something out of this…recycling has been worked out in china… way ahead before the start of this crap you are talking about…. just how bad its this for tax payers money

    November 25, 2013 - 6:49 PM

  • gobucks

    So much for a civil discussion.

    So, Mr. Crap, the Chinese…the ones with all the mines and refineries…the ones exporting thousands of tons of rare earth materials, stockpiling thousands of tons…are also recycling rare earths out of spent products? Care to share any of your knowledge with us? You obviously know something we don’t.

    November 26, 2013 - 12:32 PM

  • JWilly48519

    In some cases, such as a design of ours, a REM is adhesively integrated into a high permeability steel flux-lines-guiding structure so as to concentrate those flux lines in a desired geometry…in our case, to create a magnetic latch of particular performance. It’s not clear what means might be technically possible, not even considering economics, to separate the rare earth component of the magnetic assembly from the adhesive materials and steel encasement. The particular adhesive is not readily dissolvable, and thermal destruction of course is a bad idea in the vicinity of rare earths.

    As a manufacturer with this design reality, what documentation do we provide with our product to support REE recycling?

    December 18, 2013 - 5:46 PM

  • leven

    @gobucks and RB…..you obviously have no idea what is happening in China and NdFeB market…bunch of PR that you are blowing through trumpet.. i agree with taxpayers money have been wasted

    January 21, 2014 - 4:09 PM

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