March 11, 2011 / 3:21 PM / 9 years ago

New Push to Recycle Rare Earth Minerals

This week I’ve been examining the rare earth materials critical to a host of clean technology applications. The intention is to produce an accurate forecast of rare earth demand from the clean technology industry.

As we’ve talked about before, several rare earth metals with unique chemical and physical properties are an important part of the material composites crucial for prominent clean technology applications including electric vehicles, fuel cells, wind turbines, and energy efficient lighting. China currently accounts for 97 percent of rare earth production. In July, Beijing introduced new export quotas aimed at consolidating its fractured mining industry. Rare earth prices have subsequently skyrocketed and, as a consequence, many large-scale consumers of REMs are examining new ways to reduce their REM expenditure and diversify their supply sources away from China.

One way of achieving this is through greater investment in rare earth metal recovery and recycling processes. While most companies are keeping their developments and technologies under wraps, since July there have been several announcements related to rare earth recycling.

In October, Japan’s Shin-Etsu Chemical announced plans to extract rare earths from discarded air conditioners and recycle them in magnets, starting this year. Reuters reports that Shin-Etsu is negotiating with a number of electronic appliance retailers to build a recovery system and the company will be the first in Japan to collect and recycle rare earth metals from appliances.

In December, Hitachi announced that it had developed technologies for recycling rare earth magnets from hard disk drive motors and air conditions and other compressors. The process of extracting rare earths from separated and collected rare earth magnets has been performed manually using acids and other chemicals, resulting in liquid waste disposal that causes issues in terms of cost and environmental conservation. According to Hitachi, the new dry process relies on a new extraction material with a high affinity for rare earths. Going forward Hitachi hopes to commence full recycling operations by 2013 after calculating overall recycling costs and recovery ratio.

In May, Tokyo based chemical maker Showa Denko KK opened a plant in Vietnam to begin recycling dysprosium and didymium metal used to make magnetic alloys. The company, the world’s biggest producer of some components used in hard disk drives, makes 8,000 tons of the alloys a year and plans output of 800 tons at the recycling factory.

Additionally, Bloomberg reports that copper processor Mitsubishi Materials Corp., which has recycling ventures with Panasonic Corp. and Sharp Corp., last year, started researching the cost of extracting neodymium and dysprosium from washing machines and air conditioners.

Look out for further developments in recycling technologies as large rare earth consumers look to offset the increased costs associated with securing new supplies.

Euan Sadden is a research analyst contributing to Pike Research’s fuel cells and smart energy practices.

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