As demand for high-tech devices grows, so does interest in recycling the esoteric metals that make them run. But challenges abound.
April 7, 2014 — 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.
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.”
LINK to rest of article