Rare earth metals are essential in research, development, and manufacturing of new consumer and industrial electronics, including several critical uses in alternative energy infrastructure such as wind turbines, electric cars, and nuclear reactor rods.
Rare earth metals are metal compounds found as ore in the earth’s crust that has specific chemical, magnetic, and electronic properties. Rare earth metals are present in computer hardware, smartphones, compact fluorescent bulbs, and especially magnets of all strengths and types.
These metal ores are typically mined, and the ore processed to extract the elemental metal. Both the mining and extraction are difficult, expensive, and energy intensive processes. At this time, the majority of rare earth metals are used once, and then discarded as parts of consumer electronics, as methods of recycling and extracting the metals are only newly developed.
Filtration of Metals
Public-private partnerships have been working to develop the technologies needed to recycle rare earth metals from post-consumer electronics and other products. The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in collaboration with Momentum Technologies, has been developing a variety of processes. Its end goal is to provide a filtration processing that can separate the metals in one pass.
One of the challenges has been the need to separate the various rare earth metals from each other, as they tend to have similar magnetic and chemical properties. These properties are used to develop filtration processes, and the various metals tend to be too similar for the current filtrations. However, manufacturers are testing some combined rare earth metal compounds that have not been separated. They are finding that combinations of the metals are working in the manufacturing processes. Further filtration and separation of the individual metals may not be necessary.
The goal for all of the research programs is to develop a recycled rare earth metal in a form that can reenter the manufacturing supply chain. The first stage includes separating the rare metal containing parts from the rest. There are other challenges in electronic recycling, including dealing with hazardous waste.
Many of the recycling programs are going to require specialized equipment to deal with electric cars, wind turbines, and other large products. Even with the challenges, the energy needed to mine and process raw ore is considerable and comes with human and political costs. Opportunities for development and expansion of electronics recycling processes and systems are growing.