If there are two qualifiers that define “rare earths” they are not —market ironies— neither their condition as land nor, of course, their strange nature. Rather, the labels of valuable come to mind. And strategic. The first because of the importance they have gained in the technology sector. Second, because their economic and geopolitical value has made them key materials that we are already looking for in places as remote as frozen Greenland or the bottom of the Pacific.
This being the case, the big question is: And why not make the most of what we already have and improve recycling? It seems obvious, but the answer is more complex than it seems.
Let’s put ourselves in context. With the label “rare earths” we actually refer to a group of 17 chemical elements, including scandium, yttrium or lanthanides. They are relatively abundant. And others that are not so easy to find. However, they all share one trait: they are critical for a technology industry that uses them —among a long etcetera— in batteries, turbines or connected devices. Their role is therefore crucial for processes as relevant as the transition towards more environmentally friendly mobility and energy.
The importance of context. This relevance has given them a more than relevant geostrategic role. The reason is very simple. Despite its importance, the extraction and supply of “rare earths” is not balanced internationally. On your map China plays a crucial role. According to IEA data, in 2019 the Asian giant accounted for 60% of the global production of rare earth elements (REE). His control is even tighter in the processing phase.
Such a situation is not comfortable for the rest of the countries, which have activated mechanisms to loosen their dependence on China. Japan wants to look for them at the bottom of the ocean, Turkey boasts of the potential of its own resources, there are companies that are committed to extracting them in Greenland and movements have been registered in the US, Australia or Europe, some as important as the one just made by the mining company. LKAB, which claims to have identified a huge deposit in Sweden.
A rising demand. As a background, we have a demand that has grown considerably over the last decades. Science News points out that in 2021, 280,000 metric tons of rare earths were extracted worldwide, which is about 32 times more than what was extracted in the mid-50s. If we look to the future, some estimate that in a matter of two decades we will need up to seven times as much rare earths. And all this, let’s remember, refers to key elements for computers, mobile phones, lasers, fiber optics and pigments, among many other applications. There are even scientists who are already working on alternatives to clear up this scenario. Others are looking forward to the possibilities of space mining.
The extraction of rare earths is not easy either. Mining firms must excavate large amounts of ore and start a process that is not without weaknesses: it requires energy and has an impact on the environment, even generating radioactive waste.
And why not recycle the materials that we already have? The question is pertinent. After all, we have spent many years recycling many other resources, such as aluminum or nickel. Its potential is also just as interesting. Science News estimates that if we could hone the process, in a matter of a decade the rare earth magnet market could see around a quarter of its demand for rare earths met through recycling. It is not a small percentage.
“Despite these facts, typically only about one percent of REEs are recycled from end products. The rest is discarded and eliminated from the materials cycle,” he warned. [un estudio publicado en 2018](https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2452223617301256#:~:text=The%20rare%20earth%20elements%20(REE,removed%20from%20the%20materials%20cycle.) at Current Opinion magazine by a group of researchers from the University of Nevada (UNLV) In the report they stressed the future potential that the process would offer.
Promising, but not easy. Here’s the key. Just because it’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s easy. “This future potential will require a significant amount of research, but increasing the amount of REE recycling will help overcome some of the critical issues with these elements. That includes higher demand and issues over security of supply.” [alertaban hace ya un lustro](https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2452223617301256#:~:text=The%20rare%20earth%20elements%20(REE,removed%20from%20the%20materials%20cycle.) experts from the University of Nevada To advance on the path of recycling it is necessary to face obstacles of a technological, economic and logistical nature.
The reason is quite simple. Many rare earth products are “inherently unrecyclable,” in the words of one of the report’s authors. When combined with other metals and products, extracting them becomes a complex task that involves the use of products and an investment of energy that make the process less attractive. Added to this handicap is another equally determinant: its presence in certain elements, such as a hard drive, may be minimal.
Shall we throw in the towel then? No. As Science News details, there are teams working on ways to improve recycling. Both research centers and companies have embarked on the effort and although the path is complex, they have two great advantages in their favor: the value of rare earths and that their proposals considerably reduce the impact on the environment, For example, cutting the carbon footprint by less than half when compared to one of the main oxide extraction and processing methods used in China.
And what solutions do they propose? One of the proposals on the table involves the use of the Gluconobacter bacterium, capable of generating organic acids that are used to extract rare earths from certain catalysts. Its impact is less than that of hydrochloric acid or other substances used in leaching. The amount of rare earths that are recovered with bacterial acids is less than that allowed by other less environmentally friendly alternatives, but that does not mean that it is no longer profitable. The researchers have also worked with other bacteria that produce a protein capable of separating rare earths from each other or copper salts for discarded magnets.
Not all the challenges center on how to separate and obtain the recycled rare earths. Another important question is how to obtain the electronic waste that contains it, which in turn would require well-oiled logistics. Once they reach the recycling plants, there is also the question of dismantling them. That process alone requires a relevant effort and cost.
Cover image: Kilian Seiler (Unsplash)