Why Rare Earth Recycling is Rare and What We Can Do About It
April 30, 2014
Earbuds, touch screens, CFLs with a warm glow, rechargeable batteries and power windows: Most of us take these things for granted. When we do, we also take for granted a group of elements called rare earth metals, whose special electronic and magnetic properties make them a key component of many 21st century technologies. These 17 elements are actually plentiful enough — you probably have some in your backyard — but except for a few ore deposits, they are found in nature in low concentrations that make them difficult to collect. As they are integral parts of cell phones, hard drives, hybrid cars, wind turbines and other products with skyrocketing demand, rare earth metals face soaring demand, too.
As recently as 2010, China produced about 97 percent of the world's supply of rare earth elements. That year the country decided to limit exports, which drove prices through the roof.
"Prices of some rare earths rose by 2,000 percent and more," said Jim Sims of rare earth mining company Molycorp, which recently reopened a shuttered rare earth mine in California. Rare earth element prices since have dropped and are now much less volatile — thanks in part to the opening or reopening of Molycorp mines and others around the world. Still, burned by this experience, corporations and countries are working to ensure themselves a sufficient stream of rare earths however they can.
One option being explored is recycling rare earth metals from used products. You might think it would be easier to recover rare earths from products than extract them from the ground, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Given the importance of these products to modern living, governments around the world are funding research to make recycling a more feasible option. Some companies are already finding it worthwhile.