Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are a group of 15 elements known as the lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. Valued for their unique optical and magnetic properties, 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. Rare earth elements are also known as the “Green Elements” because they are essential to many green energy technologies such as hybrid car batteries and wind turbines.
Rare earth elements aren’t actually rare, but they are extremely difficult and costly to mine. China now produces most of the world’s supply of REEs, but in recent years has been imposing trade limits and raising prices, prompting Western countries to look for alternatives. Among these potential solutions is REE recycling.
This idea seems obvious; after all, many other metals such as aluminum and steel are routinely recycled and reused. Yet it’s estimated that less than one percent of REEs from spent consumer and industrial products are recovered, partially because consumer education and awareness is lacking, but mainly because practical and economically-feasible means of recycling REEs have yet to be developed.
Extracting rare earth material from complex electronics such as cell phones is an arduous process with a small payout. Many devices contain only tiny quantities of valuable REEs, often less than one gram, and are designed in such a way that the REEs are difficult to separate from other components. Once the rare earth materials have been removed, they have to be separated and purified. Rare earth elements rapidly react with air to form oxides, in which case they must be combined with other materials to create usable products.
Some industry participants have suggested that products be designed, or redesigned, with REE recycling in mind so that the REEs more accessible, while some manufacturers are seeking ways to eliminate the use of REEs altogether. Those organizations that are developing technologies to make REE recycling more efficient are focusing their efforts on products with larger quantities of REEs such as magnets, batteries, and fluorescent lamps, in the hope that the value of the recovered material would exceed the cost of recycling it.
For example, a leading automobile manufacturer has developed a process to extract more than 80% of rare earth metals contained in nickel-metal hydride battery. This may turn out to be a significant source of recycled REEs as nearly every major automobile manufacturer is preparing new models of hybrid and electric vehicles. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Ames Laboratory are working on a method to separate neodymium, a rare earth element, from the mix of other materials in magnets to make new magnets from the recycled rare earth materials. Initial results are promising— the recycled REEs maintain their useful properties. Appliance manufacturers are working on techniques to extract REEs from air conditioners, washing machines and hard disk drives. Other efforts are being made by Chinese scientists who are experimenting with new method to recycle rare earth elements from wastewater. (Take a look at this infographic for more information about the many ways rare earth elements are used.)
REE recycling technologies are still in the early stages but development efforts are likely to increase along with the demand for the consumer goods they are used to make. Scrap metal recyclers who need to identify and quantify the amount of REEs in the items that come into their yard should be aware that portable x-ray fluorescence (PXRF) analyzers can instantly determine the elemental composition of any metal alloy. Are you a scrap metal recycler or manufacturer interested in the reuse potential of REEs? Let us know.
Celebrate Earth Day by recycling your rare earth elements!