Establishing techniques to recycle rare earth metals profitably remains elusive.
After a rapid price spike in 2011, users of rare earth metals quickly began considering how to best recycle the current above-ground supplies of these metals. A panel convened at the Electronics Recycling Asia conference in November, however, admitted that significant barriers remain to widespread recycling of rare earth metals.
Freelance journalist Adam Minter moderated the panel and noted that prices for rare earth metals spiked in late 2010 and early 2011, then subsequently drifted back downward. “These kinds of price cycles will determine how much recycling takes place,” said Minter.
Panelist Professor Jinhui Li of China’s Tsinghua University noted that rare earth metals deserve their “rare” label, as the 130,000 metric tons produced in 2011 is a fraction of the 15 million metric tons of copper or the 1.5 billion metric tons of steel produced that year.
In an earlier presentation on rare earth metals recycling, Li said some 36 percent of the world’s rare earth metal reserves are believed to be in China but as of 2010 China’s mining activity was producing 94 percent of the world’s output.
Panelist Crystynna Ewe, the Singapore-based head of take back for the Asia Pacific and Japan region for Dell Inc., said rare earth metals recycling “was a very new topic” for Dell, though the company considers product life cycles important and favors the use of recycled content.
From a technical viewpoint, panelist Christian Ekberg, a professor at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, said rare earth metals “are rare because they are difficult to separate; this is why universities are involved—it is a challenge.”
Ekberg also asked whether the potential supply of rare earth metals in the ground is especially lacking or whether regulations prohibiting mining are “the source of the problem” and why China is nearly the sole source of output of mined rare earth metals such as yttrium, cerium, europium and terbium.
Panelist Thomas Langer of German company OSRAM AG provided an overview of that company’s commercialized process to recover yttrium, cerium, lanthanum, europium and terbium from end-of-life fluorescent lamps. “It is, for us, profitable,” Langer said.
While some panelists and audience members with questions expressed optimism that technological solutions to boost rare earth elements recycling will soon develop, Ekberg sounded a note of caution. “Technology will not automatically catch up,” he stated. “It is difficult to separate lanthanites (rare earths) from other materials. The technology is not emerging very fast, I must say.”
Professor Li also pointed to attempts thus far to recover indium from LCD (liquid crystal display) monitors. At the current price of indium, “you’re going to lose money if you recycle it,” Li said,” so this is not economically sound.”
The Electronics Recycling Asia conference, organized by ICM AG, was Nov. 13-16 in Guangzhou, China.