Market Opportunities in REE Recycling

A just-released report by the US Department of Energy (DOE) reinforces what many in the electronics industry already know: The global supply of rare-earth elements (REEs) largely depends on how China decides to manage the materials, because the most viable sources of REEs lie within China's borders. (See: The Truth About Rare Earths, Part 2 and The Truth About Rare Earths, Part 1.)

The DOE report examines alternative sources of REEs, including recycling, and concludes that the REE-reclamation market currently is vastly underserved.

REEs are not often recycled, reports the DOE, because they are used in small quantities in many technologies, both on a total and a per-unit basis. Additionally, per-kilogram market prices are generally low relative to precious metals, so recycling is often not cost effective.

However, as the use of these materials increases in vehicles and other common technologies, recycling could make more economic sense. Recycled content could become valuable as a secondary source on the market, which can ease periods of tight supply. Relevant research includes the following:

  • Technology, component, and material design for disassembly and recycling
  • Collection, logistics, and reverse supply chain optimization
  • Recycling process development
  • Recycling and reconditioning rare-earth materials from spent fluorescent lamps (with particular attention to safe and economical disposal of mercury)
  • Recycling and reconditioning rare-earth materials from manufacturing yield loss
  • Methods for efficient demagnetization of rotating-machine components
  • Metallic flux processes for recovering REEs

Electronics manufacturing has at some point tackled all of these functions — design, supply chain optimization, manufacturing yield, and flux processes — and has improved on them. Moving core competencies into adjacent markets is a key strategy for organic growth. It's extremely likely the electronics manufacturing industry has developed technology that can be applied to REE recycling.

Additionally, according to the DOE, the sector has opportunity for job growth.

“As the domestic industry in rare earth metals and other critical materials grows, a trained workforce will be increasingly important,” according to the DOE. “Today, employment opportunities in these areas are limited, in part because of the small size of the sector. Yet the sector is less likely to grow without trained workers…

“Investment in education and training, alongside investment in productive capacity, can help support the country’s manufacturing base. Cooperation among government, industry and research institutions can be important drivers of clean energy innovation.”

Of course, any nascent market holds the same growth opportunities. But if the US wants manufacturing to return to its shores, clean energy appeals to both business and public sensibilities. The US could also gain a degree of independence regarding REE sourcing. Any thoughts?

8 comments on “Market Opportunities in REE Recycling

  1. DataCrunch
    December 22, 2010

    China has been steadily tightening their worldwide export quotas of REE, and periodically blocks shipments altogether to Japan.  Japan has already been active in recycling REE as well as stockpiling REE due to the uncertainty of China’s restrictions on exports to Japan.  Japan even recycles REE from used products from the US and the country is aggressively researching alternatives to REE for their products.  Perhaps the US will follow Japan’s lead on this.

  2. kumar1863
    December 22, 2010

    Specially rare earth metals like neodymium is very useful in many green technology products, including batteries for hybrid cars, LED lights, fuel cell and solar panels. Boosting recycling rates not only offers a path to enhancing those supplies and keeping metal prices down, but can also generate new kinds of employment while ensuring the longevity of mines and stocks found in nature.

  3. stochastic excursion
    December 23, 2010

    Japan has materials science and technology programs that are well-established.  I could see them coming up with a game-changing technology. 

    China's unfriendly trade practices may be a little short-sighted.  It was Japan that was largely responsible for putting the term “rust-belt” into the American lexicon.

  4. Ms. Daisy
    December 26, 2010

    It is surprising that the Western countries have not figured out how to re-cycle these rare earth metals, inlight of the fact that 97 percent of the world's supply comes from mines in China.

    Historically, China will not recycle any material so we should not expect them to recycle this one. Mike Adams, editor of just wrote that China is prepared to simply stop exporting these strategic elements to the rest of the world by 2012, because it would need it for its own development. So the opportunity for recycling is definitely wide open and in fact necessary now if the electronic supply chain is to continue.

    So here we go again, China calling the shots and we are all helpless!!

  5. Ms. Daisy
    December 26, 2010

    Do you know if the US has started any recycling like the Japanese? I know that 85% of the lead used in the States is from its recyling of old  lead acid  batteries.

    Praseodymium used for lasers and ceramic materials and Gadolinium used for the manufacture of computer memories can be salvaged from the tons of computer at our dump sites instead of its being shipped to third world countries!

  6. Clairvoyant
    December 26, 2010

    Yes, I agree that it would be good to have more of this type of recycling here in the 'west'. However I think the problem is the cost of doing so, and not having high margins on selling the recycled material. Finding ways to recycle these materials cheaply and safely could go a long way.

  7. Ms. Daisy
    December 29, 2010

    Does anyone really know much on the recycling cost of REE or are we just assuming it will be expensive. Ready or not the US will have to figure out how to pay for more expensive Rare Elements when China clamps down on selling from its mines and whatever is available in the open market will be exhorbitive. Then what? Manufacturing disruption of production cycles outside of China?

    This will lead to China's entrenched dorminance in both manufacturing and sourcing of electronic supplies. Its time to take Barbara's advice of market opportunities in REE recycling.

  8. Clairvoyant
    December 30, 2010

    Agreed, I myself don't have much information on the cost of this recycling. I agree with your opinion that the future of electronics will rely on recylcing especially with the cut back of rare earth materials.

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