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rare earth elements

Governments Investigate Recycling Rare Earths

rare earth elementsGovernments are funding research to find cost effective and efficient ways to recycle rare earth metals from used products.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Innovation Hub is looking for ways to secure the supply of five rare earth metals identified by the government as critical, reported Ensia.

Rare earth metals are elements such as neodymium and dysprosium found in  many green technologies including generators that store power in wind turbines, and the electric motors that propel electric and hybrid cars.

Some companies are already recycling rare earths, although challenges remain, reported Ensia. In some products such as touch screens, the rare earths are distributed throughout the material at the molecular scale.

Typically, cell phones are recycled by smashing and grinding them into powder. The powder can be separated into component materials for recycling or disposal.

Recycling rare earths does have environmental drawbacks. Large amounts of energy is required to recycle the elements and hazardous byproducts are produced during the process. In some cases, recycling rate earths is more environmentally harmful than mining for the metals, reported Ensia.

The EU has tapped seven major European research institutes for Value from Waste, a program aimed increasing the recovery rate of rare earth metals from scrap. Currently, China mines the majority of the  world’s rare earth supply, although companies such as US-based Molycorp have reopened rare earth operations.

Products and demand is increasing faster than production. Forecasts show that as early as next year, these metals will be hard to come by, SINTEF says.

The seven research institutes included in the project are Fraunhofer, CEA, TNO, VTT, SINTEF, Tecnalia and SP. Researchers may have already found a way to recycle rare earth elements from wastewater. Scientists described the process in the Oct. 9 issue of the journal ACSApplied Materials & Interfaces.

Photo: Rare earth magnets by Wikicommons

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