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Eco-Friendly Process Emerges to Recycle Valuable Rare Earth

May 5th 2014

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In the March edition of Green Chemistry, researchers from the University of Leuven, Belgium, are detailing what they describe as an environmentally friendly process to separate transition metals copper, cobalt, iron, manganese and zinc from rare earths in neodymium–iron–boron or samarium–cobalt permanent magnets.

The process relies on solvent extraction using trihexyl(tetradecyl)phosphonium chloride as a ionic liquid, without organic solvents, and it could be applied as a sustainable hydrometallurgical method for removing transition metals, claim the researchers. With this new development, old magnets could become an interesting secondary source of rare-earth metals, especially when these elements become scarce-enough and too strategic for the electronics industry not to be re-used.

Permanent rare-earth magnets are found in electronic devices ranging from hard drives to air conditioners and wind turbines and the usefulness of neodymium and samarium in the microelectronics industry is outweighed only by their lack of availability, reports Chemistry World, the Royal Society of Chemistry‘s news site.
The European Commission has placed these elements on a list of critical raw materials.

In fact, according to lead researcher Koen Binnemans, recycling could well complement mining to reduce the supply-risk problem (China being the major provider of rare earth metals and increasingly self-serving for its growing internal market).

"Although less than 1% of rare-earth elements are recycled currently, 20% of global demand could be met in this way", estimates Binnemans who sees the new recycling process as a mean for the western world to regain some independence of China. Next on the research roadmap is to work on real-world samples from end-of-life industrial magnetics.Patents abound about rare-earth elements recovery processes, for extracting distinct elements from rare-earth magnets, nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, LCD screens, or even industrial waste-waters.

Of course, such recycling processes are big improvements over the most common scenario of disassembling rare-earth magnets only to crush them into new magnetic compounds. They look at chemically extracting the rare-earth elements for their re-use in other applications.

As for all other resources, the incentive to recycle in any given country will always be tied to the cost of extraction or to the perceived geopolitical threat of not being a producer.

But rare-earth metals may well be the trigger for better e-waste management, methodically retrieving old appliances and disused high-tech gadgets and turning e-waste into secondary mine deposits rather than shipping it away to far flung third-world countries.

Because the recovery of rare-earth elements goes well beyond simple scrap metal mechanics, it is also an opportunity to rethink the entire materials supply chain, from first extraction to design-for-recyclability, end-of-life collection and full disassembly for optimum recycling.Considering the cheer volume of consumer electronics that few companies like Samsung, Apple, Nokia, or LG manufacture, it is surprising that these companies would not put in place themselves good design-for-recyclability practices to work hand-in-hand with recycling companies and get a direct benefit, instead of throwing the issue over the fence to sales-points collection and third-party e-waste management companies.

Some industrial companies like Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi have come up with disassembly robots for their own air-conditioning appliances and for hard disks, speeding up the recovery of rare-earth magnets for their re-use as raw crushed material by partner magnet manufacturers.

This is a small green step in the right direction, certainly encouraged by Japan’s insularity and little resources. Since these rare-earth elements (and many other materials) will increasingly become of strategic importance, governments could tax more heavily producers of difficult-to-repair, difficult-to-recycle products.

Alternatively, consumer electronics could be tagged with repairability/recyclability labels, very much like the energy rating labels commonly found on white goods and home appliances.

In Europe the eco tax has been put in place as a form of collective contribution towards paying the costs of e-waste collection and recycling, but adding a small repairability/recyclability label would also give a chance for consumers to raise their vote with regard to the recycling issue. This may drive more businesses to offer appropriate repair services (at competitive prices rather than at extortion rates). In the meantime, you can always consult www.ifixit.com for repairability ratings or to find a repair manual. 


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