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Why Rare Earth Recycling Is Rare (And What We Can Do About It)

As demand for high-tech devices grows, so does interest in recycling the esoteric metals that make them run. But challenges abound.

Jessica Marshall
@marshalljessica

scrap phone

Earbuds, touch screens, CFLs with a warm glow, rechargeable batteries and power windows: Most of us take these things for granted. When we do, we also take for granted a group of elements called rare earth metals, whose special electronic and magnetic properties make them a key component of many 21st century technologies. These 17 elements are actually plentiful enough — you probably have some in your backyard — but except for a few ore deposits, they are found in nature in low concentrations that make them difficult to collect. Since they are integral parts of cell phones, hard drives, hybrid cars, wind turbines and other products with skyrocketing demand, rare earth metals face soaring demand, too.

As recently as 2010, China produced about 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements. That year the country decided to limit exports, which drove prices through the roof.

“Prices of some rare earths rose by 2,000 percent and more,” says Jim Sims of rare earth mining company Molycorp, which recently reopened a shuttered rare earth mine in California. Rare earth element prices have since dropped and are now much less volatile — thanks in part to the opening or reopening of Molycorp mines and others around the world. Still, burned by this experience, corporations and countries are working to ensure themselves a sufficient stream of rare earths however they can.


One option being explored is recycling rare earth metals from used products. You might think it would be easier to recover rare earths from products than extract them from the ground, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Given the importance of these products to modern living, governments around the world are funding research to make recycling a more feasible option. Some companies are already finding it worthwhile.

Not Curbside

Recycling rare earth elements isn’t as easy as recycling glass or plastic — there are challenges at nearly every level.

For one thing, the elements are present in small amounts in things like cell phones. As parts get smaller, so do the amounts of material used. In a touch screen, for example, the elements are distributed throughout the material at the molecular scale.

“It’s actually getting much harder to recycle electronics,” says Alex King of the Ames Lab in Ames, Iowa, and director of the Critical Materials Institute — a U.S. Department of Energy–funded “Innovation Hub” focused on strategies for ensuring the supply of five rare earth metals identified by the government as critical. “We used to have cell phones where you could snap out the battery, which is probably the biggest single target for recycling. With smartphones, those things are built so you can’t get the battery out, at least not easily.”

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Neodymium Magnets and Recycling

Creating a market for Rare earth magnets and metals.

 

The existing rare earths supplies are limited and produced in very few locations on earth the largest of which is China. Due to the importance of Rare earths to industry, Technology and national defence, recycling will become critical.

We are working on creating a market to bridge the gap in efficient supplies of these materials to large scale re-processors.

 

In the near future Einstein Surplus will announce a market place for these magnets and metals.

 

There are several types of rare earth permanent magnets, all of which can be recycled .

 

A permanent magnet does not lose its magnetic field as opposed to Electro magnets that generate a field using a power source, such as lifting magnets at a steel yard.

Permanent magnets are found in hard drives, speakers, snaps on Purses and wallets, door latches, cell phones, Motors and power generators to name just a few.

There are four types of permanent magnets:


Neodymium Iron Boron (NdFeB or NIB) and Samarium Cobalt (SmCo) generally known as rare earth magnets


Alnicoaluminum, nickel and cobalt


Ceramic or Ferrite– Made With Strontium ferrite a ceramic type of iron oxide

 

Where else are Rare Earth elements found?

Cell phones use rare earths in quantities less than a gram, such as the neodymium magnets that power the speaker & the vibrate function. LCD screens include rare earth phosphors, like europium, yittrium and terbium giving flat screens the ability to generate color.

Fluorescent light bulbs contain rare earths in the phosphor coating. Fluorescent recycling has received attention due to the mercury content . Less attention is paid to the white coating on the inside of bulbs, which contain the rare earth elements.

Florescent recyclers typically captured the end caps, mercury, and glass, discarding the phosphor powder.

 

 

 

 


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Einstein Surplus is about technological, scientific and Industrial Scrapping.

In the Menu you will find:

Lists of every Auction and Sale I have attended with details and Images when possible. Hopefully My stories will give you insight into the profession of large scrapping projects.

Links to top Auctioneers for Plant closures and corporate liquidations.

Auctions and sales for- Federal Government, State Government, University surplus.

Links to well regarded companies who run salvage stores and online sales

Links to well run professional Scrap yards.

Links to curated videos and websites about scrapping how to and advice.