Rare earth re-cycling starting to get momentum
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.
Get our daily investorintel update
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.
InvestorIntel is a trusted source of reliable information at the forefront of emerging markets that brings investment opportunities to discerning investors.