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?