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Recycling as a response to Rare Earth Elements’ import dependence

Mineral chalcopyrite  isolated on a white background

© iluzia / Fotolia

The Rare Earth Elements (REE) are a group of 17 metals used in many high-tech products. It is estimated that China possesses around 35-40% of world reserves of REEs. However, increasing worldwide demand for REEs has led China to impose restrictions on their export. Therefore, recycling REEs is increasingly perceived in Europe as an important strategy to reduce the EU’s import dependence for these rare metals. In its communication of 29 February 2012, the European Commission highlighted the importance of technological innovation, such as in the field of recycling, for securing raw material supplies. The European Parliament has also stressed the importance of REE recycling. In its resolution of 13 September 2011, the European Parliament stated that the problems arising from Europe’s increasing needs for raw materials (including REE) also represent an opportunity for Europe to become more resource efficient and innovative, especially with regard to recycling. However, on a technological level, REE recycling is still at the starting point, posing a number of technical and regulatory challenges. This document brings together a number of current and recent studies on REE recycling.

The Library has produced a Briefing, entitled ‘Rare earth elements and recycling possibilities‘, which provides a comprehensive overview of what REEs are, and the current challenges faced by the EU with regard to REE supply and recycling.

Overviews

Challenges in Metal Recycling / Graedel, T.E. and Reck, B.K., Science, 2012, VOL 337. This essay highlights the factors limiting the rate of REE recycling such as social behaviour, product design, technologies, and thermodynamics separation.

Rare Earth Elements / British Geological Survey, 2011, p. 41-42. This section focuses on the problems surrounding REE’s recycling. The rest of the document provides extensive analyses on other REE’s aspects, such as mineralogy, deposit location, extraction, production processes, environmental implications, uses, etc.

The Case for Recycling of Rare Earth Metals, A CR3 Communication / Anand T., Mishra B., Apelian D. and Blanpain B., TMS, 2011. This paper discusses how REE’s price increase makes recycling a viable alternative to reduce import dependence.

Rare Earth Metals / Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology, 2011. A more general overview that examines the issues linked to REE future supplies, and discusses both UK and international response on the subject.

Analyses

Metal Recycling. Opportunities, Limits, Infrastructure / UNEP, 2013. This report discusses how to increase metal-recycling rates in general, and thus resource efficiency, from both a quantitative and qualitative viewpoint. It also covers REE.

Rare Earth Elements: a review of production, processing, recycling and associated environmental issues / United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2012. Section 5 of this study addresses directly the issues surrounding REE recycling, such as the processing steps and environmental implications. The study also covers other issues related to REE. For instance, section 6 discusses the potential health and ecological risks of production, processing, and recycling of REE.

Scarcity of Rare Earth Elements / Royal Netherlands Chemical Society, 2012. This review discusses a variety of aspects related to the economic accessibility of REE, such as reserve location, production and supply, environmental impact and recycling.

Recycling industry can boost the European economy / EEA, 2012. In this article, EEA argues how the recycling industry can have a positive impact on European economy by creating jobs and fostering growth. The article also highlights that recycling can be beneficial in securing supplies of critical resources, such as REE.

Study on rare earths and their recycling, Final Report for The Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament / Öko-Institut e.V., 2011. This study was created within the framework for the development of a European strategy for a sustainable REE economy, specifically addressing the recycling, substitution, and efficient use of REE.

Critical Metals in Strategic Energy Technologies – Assessing Rare Metals as Supply-Chain Bottlenecks in Low-Carbon Energy Technologies / Joint Research Centre, 2011. This report assesses whether the shortage of REE could compromise the deployment of low-carbon technology and therefore jeopardise the objectives of the EU’s Strategic Energy Technology Plan. Furthermore, the report explores a number of strategies to mitigate the potential risk of REE supply shortage, including recycling.

Rare Earth Elements—End Use and Recyclability / Goonan, T.G., 2011, U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey. The study explains the different end use and recycling possibilities for REEs and argues that recycling rates could be improved if recycling becomes mandated or if high prices of REE made recycling more cost-effective.

EU and local projects:

REE-CYCLE. This project is funded by the Seventh Framework Program for Research and Technological Development (FP7) of the EU. REE-CYCLE will focus on the development of new REE recycling technologies which are, at the same time, cost effective and environmental friendly. Duration of the project: July 2013 to June 2018. An official website for the project has not been launched yet.

REMANENCE. A FP7 project aiming at increasing the amount of REE recovered and remanufactured from existing waste streams. More specifically, REMANENCE will focus on the recovery and recycling of neodymium iron boron magnets (NdFeB) from a range of waste electronic and electrical equipment, a process which does not yet exist. Duration of the project: January 2013 to June 2016.

The LOOP project seeks to understand how to recover REE elements from waste, instead of sending it to landfills. More specifically, the project aims to validate the full potential of innovative and environmentally friendly recycling of the REE elements contained in phosphorescent powders of fluorescent lamps. Duration of the project: June 2012 to May 2014.

RARE. This project is funded by KU Leuven, and is focused on breakthrough recycling processes based on non-aqueous technology for the two main applications of rare earths: permanent magnets and lamp phosphors.

Discussion

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  1. Pingback: The iPad and rare earth metals | Global Social Change - September 4, 2013

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