A critical factor in the availability of rare earth elements is recycling. Due to the limited number of economically viable sources of rare earths and the decreasing amount of exports from China, the world’s largest rare earth producer, rare earth consumers have to be far more mindful of opportunities to recycle and reuse rare earth materials and begin to build recycling systems that can help mitigate supply risk.
According to some estimates, only one percent of all rare earth minerals are recycled today. That accounts for very little of what could be useful. In fact, most of the rare earths used in applications, such as fluorescent lighting and computer hard drives, can be recovered and reused. Doing so could mean less dependence on foreign supply and lower costs associated with the use of these technologies. Molycorp and others have begun to research the steps and processes necessary to turn recycled rare earth materials back into the high purity rare earths that can be reused. While recycling is a highly promising source of future material, the logistics and processes are complicated and will require greater consumer awareness and participation as well as extensive research and development.
The first step in this challenge is getting consumers to recycle old electronics devices and fluorescent light bulbs. According to the EPA, in 2009, 25% of consumer electronics were collected for recycling (38% of computers, 18% of televisions, and 8% of mobile phones). Similarly, only 3-5% of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are recycled. These may be the most readily available sources of recycled material, so increasing the rate at which consumers recycle these key end products will be essential.
The next step in the process is extracting the rare earth material from each of these products, which is difficult and tedious. For instance, the typical cell phone uses rare earths but in quantities that are less than a gram, such as the tiny neodymium magnets that help power the speaker or the vibrating function. Not only is this material challenging to recover, it has previously been uneconomical to extract it at these low quantities. Computers have slightly larger magnets that enable the hard disc drives to function, and the LCD screens include rare earth phosphors, like europium, terbium and yttrium.
The rare earth content in fluorescent light bulbs is small as well, but it is slightly easier to access. CFL recycling has received substantial attention in the past due to the presence of mercury. However, less attention has been paid to the white dust on the insides of these bulbs, which are the heavy rare earth phosphors. In many cases, CFL recyclers previously captured the end caps, the mercury, and the glass, but discarded the white phosphor powder. Given the escalating prices for this material, that is quickly changing.
Once the rare earth materials, like the magnets and phosphors, have been removed from end products, producers like us have essentially a rare earth concentrate that has to go through the entire complex, chemical separation process that is necessary to capture the individual rare earths. After they’re separated, they then have to be purified and, in the case of oxides, combined with other materials to create the products that are useful to technology manufacturers.
As the existing rare earths supplies continue to struggle to keep up with global demand for these materials, recycling will play an increasingly critical role. We are working on each of the steps noted above and fully expect to make recycling a key part of our business in the years to come.