Recycling: A new source of indispensible 'rare earth' materials mined mainly in China

Jun 29, 2011
Recycling: A new source of indispensible 'rare earth' materials mined mainly in China

That axiom of sustainability -- "recycle and reuse" -- could help ease concerns about a reliable supply of substances, indispensible for a modern technological society, that are produced almost exclusively in the Peoples' Republic of China. That's the conclusion of a study on these so-called "rare earth" elements in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Xiaoyue Du and Thomas E. Graedel note that the dozen-plus (REEs) have unique physical and chemical properties making them essential for defense applications, computers, cell phones, electric vehicles, batteries, appliances, fertilizers, liquid crystal displays, and other products. But there is growing concern about the supply, since only one country, China, is the major source. "Since 1990, China has played a dominant role in REE mining production; other countries are almost completely dependent on imports from China with respect to rare earth resources," the researchers state.

To determine how much recycling potential of the REEs from in-use products could add to the supply, they did the first analysis of the amount of REEs available in products in the United States, Japan, and China. Those countries are the major uses of REEs. The analysis concluded that nearly 99,000 tons REEs were included in products in 2007. This invisible stock, equivalent to more than 10 years of production, "suggests that REE recycling may have the potential to offset a significant part of REE virgin extraction in the future...and minimize the environmental challenges present in REE mining and processing," the report notes.

Explore further: Pact with devil? California farmers use oil firms' water

More information: “Global In-Use Stocks of the Rare Earth Elements: A First Estimate”, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (9), pp 4096–4101. DOI: 10.1021/es102836s

Abstract
Even though rare earth metals are indispensible in modern technology, very little quantitative information other than combined rare earth oxide extraction is available on their life cycles. We have drawn upon published and unpublished information from China, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere to estimate flows into use and in-use stocks for 15 of the metals: La, Ce, Pr, Nd, Sm, Eu, Gd, Tb, Dy, Ho, Er, Tm, Yb, Lu, and Y. Here, we show that the combined flows into use comprised about 90 Gg in 2007; the highest for individual metals were 28 Gg Ce and 22 Gg La, the lowest were 0.16 Gg Tm and 0.15 Gg Lu. In-use stocks ranged from 144 Gg Ce to 0.2 Gg Tm; these stocks, if efficiently recycled, could provide a valuable supplement to geological stocks.

Related Stories

Rare earth elements in US not so rare: report

Nov 17, 2010

Approximately 13 million metric tons of rare earth elements (REE) exist within known deposits in the United States, according to the first-ever nationwide estimate of these elements by the U.S. Geological Survey.

China plans restructure of rare earths industry

Jun 08, 2011

(AP) -- China is giving its biggest, state-owned rare earths miner and producer a monopoly for the northern part of the country in reforms aimed at bringing the strategically important sector that's crucial to advanced manufacturing ...

Premier: China won't block rare earth exports

Oct 08, 2010

(AP) -- China is not using its control over supplies of rare earth - exotic metals crucial in advanced manufacturing - as a diplomatic "bargaining chip," state media quoted Premier Wen Jiabao as saying during ...

Rare-earth mining operation to revive in US

Dec 21, 2010

After signing deals with major Japanese trading houses that have been rushing to secure new sources of rare earths, mining company Molycorp Inc. plans to restart its rare-earth mining in California by the end of the year.

China announces shakeup of rare earths industry

Feb 16, 2011

(AP) -- China plans to tighten control over rare earths producers and restrict output in a five-year development strategy, the Cabinet said Wednesday, amid concern abroad about plans to reduce exports of the exotic minerals ...

Recommended for you

Gimmicks and technology: California learns to save water

Jul 03, 2015

Billboards and TV commercials, living room visits, guess-your-water-use booths, and awards for water stinginess—a wealthy swath of Orange County that once had one of the worst records for water conservation ...

Cities, regions call for 'robust' world climate pact

Jul 03, 2015

Thousands of cities, provinces and states from around the world urged national governments on Thursday to deliver a "robust, binding, equitable and universal" planet-saving climate pact in December.

Will climate change put mussels off the menu?

Jul 03, 2015

Climate change models predict that sea temperatures will rise significantly, including in the tropics. In these areas, rainfall is also predicted to increase, reducing the salt concentration of the surface ...

As nations dither, cities pick up climate slack

Jul 02, 2015

Their national governments hamstrung by domestic politics, stretched budgets and diplomatic inertia, many cities and provinces have taken a leading role—driven by necessity—in efforts to arrest galloping ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.