Editor’s Note: You may think that rare earth elements have little to do with Earth Day (which was celebrated last week with an article about ‘green’ building materials), but those elements are essential to many green energy projects.
The ironically named Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are actually very common in the Earth’s crust. REEs shape the way we live; they are critical components in consumer electronics such as televisions, tablet computers, cameras, and mobile phones. The rechargeable batteries found in hybrid cars are made with REEs due to their unique optical and magnetic properties.
REEs are also known as the “Green Elements” because they are essential to many green energy technologies. Take a look at this infographic for a quick peek at the many ways rare earth elements are used. Though not rare, REEs rarely exist in pure form; they are usually found within other minerals, making them difficult and costly to mine. China now produces most of the world’s supply of rare earth metals, but in recent years has been imposing trade limits and raising prices, prompting Western countries to re-open mines.
As hybrid cars and other green products increase in popularity, another solution is taking shape: rare earth recycling. A leading automobile manufacturer has developed a process to extract rare earth metals from spent nickel-metal hydride batteries for reuse in new batteries. According to the company’s website, the new process enables the extraction of more than 80% of rare earth metals contained in nickel-metal hydride battery. It is expected that other automotive companies will follow suit should this approach prove commercially viable. Meanwhile, hybrid vehicles are doing a brisk business and this trend is expected to continue.
According to energy.gov, virtually every major manufacturer – Ford, Nissan, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, BMW, and others – are preparing new models of hybrid and electric vehicles with improved performance, longer range, and lower costs. More than 40 models of hybrid and electric vehicles are already available, and that number will nearly double by next year. And all those vehicles will require batteries, driving the U.S. market for advanced batteries from $5 billion in 2010 to nearly $50 billion in 2020, an average annual growth rate of 25 percent, as estimated by the U.S. Department of Energy.
How will this affect rare earth element mining?
With recycling technologies still in the early stages and the demand for both consumer and green products increasing, the exploration and mining of REEs will likely continue in order to meet manufacturing requirements. However, as green awareness grows for the recycling of products containing rare earth elements, this new industry aimed at recycling advanced batteries from the growing fleet of hybrid electric vehicles will also expand.
So both mining companies and scrap metal recycling operations should be aware that portable x-ray fluorescence (PXRF) analyzers are valuable tools in both situations. Since XRF analyzers have the ability to instantly determine the elemental composition of any type of sample at all stages of the exploration and mining process, and they can quickly and accurately determine alloy grade and chemistry of metal alloy scrap, they are valuable assets in both of these industries. In fact, many handheld XRF users in the recycling and mining segments are achieving a return on investment measured in several months, while many report that they’ve paid for the cost of the instrument in weeks, and some in as little as one day. XRF will become an even more vital technology in this marketplace as escalating demand for advanced batteries and other products that use REEs energize the mining industry and bolster geological studies as companies rush to discover new sources of these valuable elements.
To learn more about the use of XRF in exploration and mining, read the REE application note.