The problem with recycling rare earth metals

| April 2, 2014

Most Americans probably haven’t spent an abundance of time considering the role of rare earth metals in their lives. And, yet, rare earth metals are everywhere. They’re in the magnets in our computer hard drives. They’re in the massive motors used for wind turbines in the creation of alternative energy. They’re in the fiber optic communication systems that increasingly snake around the globe, transporting information at today’s hyper-speeds.

And yet, in stark contrast to the ultra-modern applications for which rare earth metals are prized, we still can’t find a clean, safe, effective, efficient method of mining and processing these substances.

Chris Lee explores the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of rare earth mining and processing in a recent story for technology publication Ars Technica.

As of 2010, China controlled 95 percent of the market on rare earth metals. That doesn’t necessarily mean that China is the only place on earth with rare metals, but it means China is the only place where the metals were being mined and exported.

Holding a veritable monopoly on a high demand market wasn’t as pleasant as it perhaps should have been. That’s because mining rare earth metals is a dirty, ugly process and it poses a substantial threat to the environment as well as significant health risks to the workers who operate the mines. Reportedly under immense environmental pressures, China “began to restrict the exportation of rare earth metals in 2010.”

Those restrictions have made the demand even more fervent. Since the mining process itself is rife with complications and hazards, interested parties have begun to explore other ways of generating these rare earth substances. One option: recycling existing materials for reuse. That sounds like a great idea in theory, but, as Lee found, recycling rare earth metals comes with its own set of complications and hazards.

A study aimed at exploring recycling options for rare earth minerals considered two options: a) shredding existing materials, and b) manually disassembling existing materials and using hydrogen gas to bring the materials back to a state where they could be reused.

The process entailed in the former method sacrifices a significant quantity of the valuable metals. That’s wasteful, and it also reduces the cost effectiveness of the whole approach. The process entailed in the latter method still requires human labor to disassemble the magnets. As Lee points out, that’s only cost effective if you can secure low-wage labor, and it’s still a dirty job.

So if neither option is perfect, what should be done to meet demand? Lee posits the obvious answer: make the original mining process safer and more environmentally friendly. Of course, that requires China to make (and enforce) stricter environmental laws. Perhaps market pressure will force that to happen — especially if, as some have suggested, there are other locations around the globe with viable mining potential.

One thing is for sure: global demand for rare earth metals isn’t likely to subside any time soon, so the country or company able to produce a clean, efficient process first will likely win the battle for the market.

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Category: Metal, Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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