Solvay Opens Rare Earth Metals Recycling Plants in France

European chemical company invests $19.5 million in two facilities.

October 3, 2012

Solvay Group, a chemical group headquartered in Brussels, has officially opened two rare earth metals recycling plants in France. The two plants are designed to allow the company to diversify its supply of rare earth metals and preserve resources.

Solvay says it has developed a process to recover rare earth metals from end-of-life products, such as light bulbs, batteries and magnets.

Research into and development of the process began in 2007 and tool two years, followed by two years of industrialization studies and site selection, according to the company. The investment was officially approved in 2011.

Solvay says it focused initially on low-energy light bulbs because the recovery channels already existed. The light bulbs have an ample amount of six different rare earths—lanthanum, cerium, terbium, yttrium, europium and gadolinium—which Solvay it is in position to recycle while preserving 100 percent of their functional properties.

Used light bulbs are collected, sorted and processed by specialized companies that recycle various components (glass, metals, plastics, mercury). The luminescent powders are shipped to Solvay Group's facility in Saint-Fons, France, where the rare earth concentrate is extracted. From there, the material is sent to Solvay’s second rare earth metals recycling facility in Charente Maritime, France, which is equipped with sophisticated separation technology, according to the company. Once the rare earth metals have been separated, they are reformulated into luminescent precursors to be reused to manufacture new lamps, Solvay says.

“Used in small quantities, rare earths play the role of ‘vitamins’ vital for the continuing development of new technologies, especially green technologies,” says Du Hua, director of Solvay Rare Earths Systems business unit. “Global demand for rare earths is growing at more than 6 percent per year, making these elements a strategic raw material. Recycling allows us to develop a new source of supply, and we aim to become the benchmark European player in this area.”

Hua adds, “The launch of these units illustrates our tangible contribution as a chemical manufacturer to sustainable development.”