For industry and consumers, the message that we need to conserve and preserve our resources has become increasingly urgent. In the past it has been about saving energy and recycling. But as the world attempts to become more sustainable, the scope of resources in the spotlight is expanding.
Now, rare earth metals, of which there are 17, are coming to the fore as stocks become more restricted and are depleting rapidly as we consume more goods that use them, such as high-quality electrical items and military equipment. It should be clarified that rare earths are not actually ‘rare’ in the sense that they are scarce, such as precious metals. Rare refers to the fact that they are found only in certain parts of the world where they have to be mined.
Most of the metals are located in China, which therefore has a certain monopoly on the market, especially as a lot of the world’s electrical waste containing these metals also ends up in China. This means that, for the rest of the world, being able to recover these rare earth metals would put them in a powerful position. But there are difficulties with this recovery.
WRAP sustainable products programme manager Gerrard Fisher explains: “The materials are available only in small quantities, so to recover a worthwhile quantity it may be necessary to process large volumes of the source material. Since they are harder and more expensive to recover than other metals, this can be a barrier. But it is likely that they are present in much higher quantities in waste streams such as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) than in the ores that we mine from the earth, so it is an option we should look at further.”
But these processes are energy-intensive and require the materials to be prepared in some way, making the process uncommercial. Currently, any recovery of rare earth metals is through smelting and electrolytic processes. The most high-profile company to recover and smelt some of these metals is Umicore, a materials technology group. It also owns the world’s largest plant for recycling precious metals.
According to Peter van Gelderen, general partner at ICOS Capital Waste and Resource Recovery Investments, investing in the recovery and recycling of rare earth metals is set to be an emerging trend.
“In respect of recent debates on the availability of certain raw material, such as rare earth metals, it might be expected that part of this [resource recovery] business will be coming back to Europe and the US in the near future.”
This is because western markets will want to secure their own supplies and stop so much material going back to China. “It is a difficult process to extract these metals from products, but there will be a business case for it sooner or later,” says van Gelderen. “It is the price of the process of getting the metal out that needs to be overcome.”
And this is exactly what Jack Lifton, an independent consultant and a world expert on rare earth metals, based in Detroit, Michigan, is trying to do. With his newly established company Technology Metals Recycling, Lifton wants to first determine the economics of the recycling process, design efficient collection and preparation systems for the scrap and eventually process these metals as a business.
“Nobody is recovering and recycling this metal - and when nobody in the scrap industry is doing it then it must be because you can’t make money out of it,” says. He is currently working with the few academic institutions and laboratories across the world studying rare earth metals to find out how much the recovery process totals, to see how it can become commercially viable.
“The cost of any scrap operation is mostly in the preparation through trying to separate the valuable materials from the rest,” he says. “This is why consumer WEEE is almost valueless because the amount of metal contained in them is so tiny that they are not worth it. But for material that comes out of industrial processes, the tonnage available for recovery could be significant.”
In the US, the demand for more rare earth metals is fierce because they are largely used in equipment for the military. Rare earth metals work more efficiently than other metals and are lighter, so they are perfect for making the lightest and most powerful electric motors.
Lifton believes that US demand could be satisfied by recycling industrial metal waste, such as offcuts and metal contained in product mistakes, generated by the giant electronics companies such as Siemens and General Electric. Furthermore, he believes that any discarded electric motors should be disassembled rather than sold on to China for the price of the copper.
An industry insider agrees that for UK WEEE recyclers, it is not worth their while to recover rare earths: “A higher rate of recovery is probably done overseas, but only limited to those facilities processing circuit boards and computer equipment. Mining of rare earth metals will dwindle and so there is a need to recover where possible.”
Earlier this year, the United Nations Environment Programme found that the supply of rare earth metals would be crucial to the production of low-carbon technology equipment and applications such as wind turbines and solar panels. So the timescale to find more sources of these rare earths is crucial for the planet. This demand, along with consumer hunger for high-technology products such as flat screen televisions and smartphones, further increases the pressure on the Earth’s resources.
Neodymium and dysprosium, which are used in wind turbines, and samarium, terbium and europium, which is used in displays to give images their red colour, are the rare earth metals that are in the most demand and therefore in need of recovery, according to Lifton. But some metals can only be found in China, which has led to tensions with the US in the past, as China has previously ceased exports for temporary periods.
Because it is not currently possible to recover rare earths commercially, for the time being there may be a way to make the use of them more efficient. The recent WRAP report Securing the Future: The Role of Resource Efficiency, found 13 ‘quick-win’ resource strategies that would make our use of rare earth metals more efficient. In fact, results showed that our reliance on these metals could be reduced by 13% by 2020.
“These strategies help us to reduce our demand for rare earths by reducing the amount we use in producing goods and by extending the life of products which contain them,” says Fisher. “For example, lean production could assist in reducing demand for rare earths in business, while re-using TVs would reduce the need for new ones and the demand for materials.”
In the UK, research is being focused on this area. WRAP is currently involved in a project to assess the flow of WEEE, which is to be published in March. It will assess the potential to develop any rare resources recovery facilities in the UK. It will work out the amount of materials in WEEE, including rare earths, in order to calculate the recovery and recycling capacity needed. This is likely to be affected by WEEE targets once they are set in the revised WEEE Directive.
Indeed, it seems the recovery of rare earth metals is set to be the hot topic in the resource efficiency world for 2011.
RARE EARTHS AND THEIR USES
Scandium: Aluminium alloy used for aerospace components
Yttrium: Lasers, superconductors, microwave filters
Lanthanum: Camera lenses, battery electrodes
Cerium: Yellow colours in glass
Praseodyium: Magnets, lasers
Neodymium: Motor magnets
Promethium: Nuclear batteries
Samarium: Magnets, lasers
Gadolinium: Magnets, lasers, X-ray tubes, computer memories
Terbium: Lasers, fluorescent lamps
Dysprosium: Magnets, lasers, wind turbines
Thulium: X-ray machines
Ytterbium: Infrared lasers
Lutetium: PET scan detectors