Finding rare earths closer to home

Rare earths are important components of consumer electronics – the minerals mined from the earth make the small, portable powerful electronics in demand this holiday season possible. With exotic names like Yttrium, Europium, Olmium, Thlulim and Praseodymium, these minerals found dispersed throughout the world are vital to modern life, making everything from LEDs to X-Ray machines possible.

Nearly all of the world’s supply of rare earth minerals is produced in China. While the minerals are available elsewhere in the world – a U.S. Geological Survey study from 2010 estimates deposits of 13 million tons of rare earth minerals in 14 states – extracting the minerals can be a difficult and expensive process.

Still, the exploitable rare earths deposits are a finite resource, and one that is controlled by a Chinese monopoly. With this mind, companies are looking at ways to mine rare earths from non-Chinese sources, both from the ground and from a growing supply of e-scrap.

Scrap electronics are already recycled for their component ‘mainstream’ metals, like steel, copper and aluminum along with plastics and other recyclable materials. The next step is to find a way to recycle the rare-earth minerals in the phosphors, magnets and other high-tech components.

Trace amounts of these elements are used in the production of consumer electronics. But given that the U.S. is expected to produce 3 million tons or more of recyclable scrap electronics each year, the amount of these materials available to be reclaimed might be approaching economic viability.

Rare earth recycling is being done on a limited scale around the world – for example in Japan where the government estimates 300,000 tons of the material were available in the country’s e-scrap stockpile, and at various locations of the Molycorp company, a rare earths company who states that recycling of the materials will become part of their portfolio in the future. The U.S. Department of Energy is also examining ways to increase the effectiveness of its recycling processes.

In the long term, markets generally drive innovation as the entrepreneurial spirit  seeks efficiencies and profitable operations. If demand for rare earths continue to exceed supply – and if prices return to record levels – recycling the minerals could become a larger part of the international electronics recycling conversation.

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