Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are critical components in consumer electronics such as televisions, computers, cameras, and mobile phones, as well as high-power magnets, fluorescent lamps, catalytic converters and metal alloys. The difficulty of mining REEs, and the Chinese monopoly on the market, has generated interest in recycling the metals from used electronic devices as an alternative source. However, many devices contain less than one gram of valuable REEs, and are designed in such a way that the metals are difficult to separate from other components. Once they have been removed, the REEs have to be separated and purified and must be combined with other materials to create usable products.
A couple of years ago we reported on efforts to recover REEs in the post, Rare Earth Element Recycling: Hype or Hope? Has anything changed? Recent reports suggest practical and economically-feasible means of recycling REEs may be on the horizon. Agmetalminer.com reported that a team of researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute may have developed both a technically and commercially viable means for recycling neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium from the drive units and motors of discarded electric and hybrid cars. Their method is based on aqueous-based technology, one of three main REE extraction processes, the others being electro-slag refining and liquid metal extraction.
Research partners from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) have licensed a membrane solvent extraction system to U.S. Rare Earths, Inc., according to an article on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory web site. The new technology simplifies the process of recycling critical materials from electronic waste by using a combination of hollow fiber membranes, organic solvents, and neutral extractants to selectively recover rare-earth elements such as neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium. These elements have a key function in the permanent magnets used in cars, cell phones, hard disk drives, computers and electric motors.
Finally, Apple Inc. has developed a recycling method all their own to recover REEs and other metals. Business Insider recently reported that Apple is using a robotic system called Liam to recover valuable materials from used iPhones. The system can take apart one iPhone 6 every 11 seconds to recover aluminum, copper, tin, tungsten, cobalt, gold and silver parts, according to Apple. Another Business Insider article reveals that Apple recovered well over a ton of gold from old phones and computers, worth just under $40 million.
While REE recycling technologies are still in the early stages of development, efforts are likely to continue to help keep pace with the anticipated increase in demand for the products they help make, and to supplement the difficult and costly mining process for these metals. Mining REEs is challenging because they rarely exist in pure form; they are usually concentrated in more than one mineral, and each mineral requires a different extraction and processing technology. Depending on the REE project type, portable XRF analyzers are useful instruments that can provide real-time, on-site assays of REEs and other elements in any type of geological samples. They can also help detect if electronics, including printed circuit board (PCB) finishes, leads, terminations, solder and internal/external interconnects, contain restricted substances. You certainly don’t want to recycle toxic substances, including lead, mercury, and cadmium. Let’s keep those contaminants out of future products.