The European Union has begun to gather concern about the availability of rare earth elements.  The rare earth elements are important components in green energy products such as wind turbines and efficient automobiles.

The demand for metals such as neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy) is increasing much faster than production. These metals are used in technologies such as the generators that gather power in wind turbines, and the electric motors that propel electric and hybrid cars. Right now they are also used in everyday products like computers and mobile phones that almost everyone is using.

SINTEFs Ana María Martínez. Click image for more info.

SINTEFs Ana María Martínez. Click image for more info.

The rare earth elements occur in Earth’s crust albeit in very low concentrations. This is why China without a “not in my neighborhood public attitude” has active mines and a strong manufacturing demand that has so far been supplying the entire world with these elements. However, in recent years, China has begun to restrict its export of these materials for its own use.

The forecasters say that as early as next year, these metals will be hard to come by.  Think price increases that will saturate through the consumer goods we buy.

That’s why the recycling of rare earth metals from the waste stream is fast becoming an important research topic. The European answer is seven major research institutes (Fraunhofer, CEA, TNO, VTT, SINTEF, Tecnalia and SP) are joining forces to invest in a joint program called “Value from Waste”, aimed at developing economically viable processes.

Odd Løvhaugen of SINTEF ICT explains, “The aim is to extract valuable materials from the waste streams. The challenges lie in the fact that the material must be sufficiently clean in order to be recycled, and we have to be sure that it is not contaminated by other harmful materials.”

The idea is to find a method that is much simpler, less costly and less environmentally risky than today’s industrial processes based on the use of strong acids.

Researchers are focusing much of their work on finding out which waste products would contain pollutants, which methods are best for analyzing and measuring the content of the polluted materials, and when such products can be expected to be found in waste.   The waste steam is vastly more chemically complex than mined ore.

Recycling needs a new process for refining out the rare earth elements.

The group is also evaluating extraction methods, techniques to recycle nanoparticles in the treatment process, and how the constituents of ash can be analyzed after incineration.

SINTEF is coordinating program using two groups of material technologies to find good analytical and extraction methods. The approach chosen by the researchers involves a technology well-known from the aluminum and smelting industry.

In the search for sources of recycling material team members have been considering permanent magnets. This is the most significant product to contain rare earth metals — measured both in terms of value and volume.

On the basis of tests, SINTEF researchers believe that the electrolysis technology used in aluminum smelters can be used to recycle magnetic alloys from discarded magnets and scrap material from magnet manufacturers. It will take some time before there are enough scrap hybrid and electric drive cars available to recycle their motor’s magnets, which is why they are turning to the magnet manufacturers for the magnetic alloys.  That makes the process slow, and there is a lot of work to be done before the researchers will know whether they will be able to achieve their goal.

But if the group succeeds they will have found a method that is much simpler than mined ore refining processes based on the use of strong acids.

Several other problems must also be solved for the cleanup stages before an electrolysis process.  Leading problems include collection and dis-assembly methods for used magnets, and in Europe the magnets themselves must also be demagnetized locally, since the long-distance transport of intact permanent magnets is prohibited.

“Other challenges include finding methods that can identify and characterize nanoparticles in gases, water and solid materials,” says Odd Løvhaugen. “And we must create a toolbox of methods to evaluate the behavior of nanoparticles in waste treatment processes.”

The rare earth family of elements may not be as valued as say palladium, gold or platinum. But for the modern way of life with so many electronic devices to continue we have to hope that the rare earth family pricing gets no where close to the values of the precious metals.

On the other hand, as people pitch ever more electronics into landfills and export their junk to third world countries, an unappreciated high value resource is simply escaping our economy.


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