The use of energy efficient lighting, like compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) and emerging LED technology, is rapidly escalating, as these lighting methods reduce energy consumption and have much longer lifespans than traditional incandescent bulbs. Yet consumers are largely unaware that these lighting technologies are made possible by rare earth phosphors.
The bulbs function by using a small amount of electricity to energize the rare earth phosphors in the bulb. These phosphors, in turn, emit visible light. Different blends of these phosphors can produce different kinds of light, and manufacturers fine tune their blends to produce light that’s most pleasing to consumers.
The rare earths used in this technology are europium, terbium, yttrium, and in some cases dysprosium. Each has luminescent qualities that are unique to the rare earths, and the qualities that make them well-suited for energy efficient lighting are the same qualities that make these rare earths essential in LCD screens.
These four rare earths, which are in high demand worldwide for their wide ranging commercial applications, are also in the shortest supply. The good news, however, is that their use in energy efficient lighting, and fluorescent lighting in particular, presents one of the most promising areas for rare earth recycling. To date, CFL recycling has focused almost exclusively on recovering the toxic mercury in the bulbs. However, it is now equally important that CFL and all fluorescent lighting recycling capture the rare earths as well.
At Molycorp, we believe that recycling energy efficient bulbs will be an important future source of heavy rare earth phosphors, and as such, recycling is a key area of our research and future technology development.