How to recycle rare earth metals?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Rare earth metals are problematic. As the name suggests, we are at risk of supplies running out [1,4], and mining and disposing of them is dangerous for people and the environment due to their toxicity [2,3,4,16]. Yet there is an ever-growing demand for these metals, as the growing world population demands more phones, lightbulbs, wind turbines and other technologies which depend on them [1,7].

Recycling may be the answer, but currently only about 1% of rare earth metals are recycled [8].

Currently, recycling is more expensive than mining new metals [1]. Therefore, there is little incentive to recycle, since businesses tend to prioritise profit [1,15]. To solve this, governments could make laws strictly enforcing that all rare earth metals must be recycled [1]. But governments often have other priorities, so it would help if it was more profitable to recycle the metals than to mine new ones [1,13,14].

What’s needed for cheaper recycling? We need better methods for separating the metals from other parts of a device [1]. One new method involves using bacteria to produce acid which then dissolves the metals [5]. Some scientists are even using by-products from the fishing industry (specifically DNA from salmon sperm!) to extract rare earth metals from other waste [9]. We need chemists and microbiologists working on separation methods for many different metals [5,8].

Old devices are often shredded for security reasons and to expose rare earth metals for recycling [6,10,11]. However, using robots can be better for recycling [12]: one has recently been designed which can dismantle and extract rare earth metals from 200 phones in an hour [1,6].

We need bright, keen brains (maybe yours!) to work on making rare earth metal recycling more efficient. This area of research is critical for minimising the harm to the environment and humans from production of gadgets and machines, some of which we need to tackle the climate crisis [1,8].

References

[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1674987119300258 See: Abstract, Introduction, Distribution of REE in the Earths crust and mineralogy, Recycling

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652614010683#bib6 See: ‘Historically, e-waste has been treated or disposed of by landfill, in some developed countries, or by informal incineration in some developing countries’

[3] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0734242X12453378?casa_token=NnMTAvnp970AAAAA%3AGXCvDcwCUjiP_QuOhLkwamiVXqMUan8mTwGRGVTm508sdRy9_VosQOS8bgnxoTJ9ofOtIaT6bPU See: Abstract, Environmental and health impacts of e-waste management in Asian countries, Issues and challenges for ESM of e-waste

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652612006932 See: Abstract, Introduction

[5] https://resource-recycling.com/e-scrap/2018/03/29/us-and-european-labs-advance-recovery-technologies/

[6] https://resource-recycling.com/e-scrap/2018/04/26/apple-rolls-out-robot-for-iphone-dismantling/

[7] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es203518d See: Abstract

[8] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2452223617301256 See: Abstract, and Magnets; Future developments in the recycling of the REE; Conclusions

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4260943/pdf/pone.0114858.pdf See: Abstract and Introduction

[10] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11837-017-2698-7 See: Reusing Permanent Magnets

[11] https://clu-in.org/download/issues/mining/Hard_Rock/Wednesday_April_4/05_Rare_Earth_Elements/01_Weber_R.pdf See: Page 12

[12] https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/IR-03-2019-0053/full/html See: Findings

[13] http://www.reecycleinc.com/about See: Opportunity

[14] https://www.statista.com/statistics/298524/public-sector-expenditure-as-share-of-gdp-united-kingdom-uk/ See: Pie chart – Housing and environment accounted for £32/873 billion (3.7%) of UK public sector expenditure for the 2019/20 fiscal year

[15] https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/tulr85&id=995&men_tab=srchresults See: e.g. ‘a corporate culture at BP that had consistently neglected worker safety and environmental standards’ page 984 and ‘drive to maximize shareholder profits’ page 987

[16] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3601293/ See: E.g. Abstract

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