The Future of Rare Metals
Today’s technology has made us dependent on rare metals and created a sharp increase in demand. Recovering and recycling as much as possible of the metals already in circulation has become an attractive alternative to mining as a way of avoiding many mining hazards. Right now, researchers all around the world are working to come up with a solution to the number one challenge involved in recovering rare metals, i.e. making the recovery process financially viable as these metals exist in such small quantities that they are very difficult to trace.
Local Mining vs. “Urban Mining”
Our advanced electronic products and batteries have made us dependent on a number of rare metals. Of the rare earth metals used in production today, 95 per cent come from China and the remaining 5 per cent from countries outside Europe. The EU has initiated several studies to chart and explore the possibilities to reduce import dependency. One idea is to start mining these metals here in Europe, where Sweden is mentioned as holding as much as 50 per cent of the deposits of rare earth elements (REE) in Europe. However, the second alternative – which is also the most obvious way of obtaining these metals – is recovering them from the WEEE that we are already collecting for recycling. This is the alternative referred to as “urban mining”. Today, we recover less than 1 per cent of all the rare earth metals present in our electric and electronic products.
“Urban mining” is what we call the process of recovering and reusing any metals that are already integrated in the electronic waste our societies generate. Metals are not only found in electronic gadgets, but also in buildings and infrastructure, for example in discarded drainage pipes and cables. In Sweden, 20 per cent of the underground cabling system is no longer in use and as such offers an important source of resource recovery.
The Challenges Involved in Recovering Rare Earth Metals
WEEE contains rare earth elements, but in very, very small quantities, and the extraction processes involved in recovering these metals are very complicated. The methods used in the large smelting plants that treat and recover electronics today are not tuned in a way that makes recovering rare metals financially viable. However, we are now at a point in time when the EU and a long line of companies, institutes and schools are keen to find out how this can be accomplished. Studies show that different metals require different precipitation techniques.
The principle for how to select which metals to target initially can be based on aspects such as available technology, energy consumption for extraction, concentration and the price of the raw material. Many studies focus on magnetic metals as they are an attractive raw material and put up less of a technical challenge compared with other metals. Producers have also identified the substances they regard as most critical from a supply aspect, as well as the substances that have the greatest social and environmental impact. The overall picture produced when joining up these factors may give a clearer indication of where we can expect to find the greatest risks and the greatest possibilities. These studies also pinpoint magnetic metals like neodymium, which is used in the technology that causes mobile phones and other products to vibrate.
One of the dilemmas of recovering rare earth metals is that we actually don’t know what products contain which metals. KEEP (run by Chalmers Industriteknik and involving El-Kretsen and many other participants) is a project for developing a traceability system for electrical and electronic products. The underlying idea is that it would benefit the entire value chain if this information was accessible. Such a database would also provide information relevant to aspects such as reuse, repair, product contents, etc. A tool like this would also be useful for shaping future versions of the producer responsibility, using fact-based information as a base for the options available.
Chalmers’ model for this is unique, but their ideas are reflected in similar research projects the world over. Charting the resources which may become available through “urban mining” and how best to use these is an issue of growing concern and importance. El-Kretsen supports universities and research. As a link between producers and the recycling phase, our role is to participate and learn, as well as to pursue matters that will lead to smarter and more efficient recycling in the future.