Rare earths – potentials for efficiency and recycling

They have unusual names: yttrium, dysprosium, neodymium and lanthanum. Yet they are not as rare as the umbrella term ‘rare earths’ would lead you to believe. Moreover, they are rarely found in significant concentrations. This is one of the reasons why the European Union classifies them as “critical metals”. In terms of their use, they are especially important and in terms of their availability they are comparatively rare. They are frequently used in technologies needed for the energy transition and in other future technologies such as hybrid vehicles, wind turbines, energy-saving light bulbs and catalysts.

China is currently the market leader, producing over 95 percent of the global supply of rare earths. Swift technology development in recent years and the current Chinese export restrictions had led to a significant price increase. The prices have currently fallen again, but experts are forecasting supply bottlenecks in the future, above all with regard to dysprosium, europium, neodymium, praseodymium and terbium.

Careful management and recovery

It is often not possible to directly substitute rare earths with other materials. Other technologies usually have to be drawn upon instead. In several cases (e.g. wind turbines) there are other options available while in others (e.g. catalysts) there are no substitution options available in the short term.

From the perspective of Oeko-Institut, sustainable resource management is needed to avoid bottlenecks; it should encompass four pillars: 1) efficiency, i.e. careful management of resources; 2) substitution, i.e. using other materials in place of critical raw materials; 3) sustainable mining; and 4) recycling strategies to recover the valuable metals. In the view of Oeko-Institut’s researchers, it is particularly important to establish a European recycling management scheme. Europe is currently one of the largest consumers of rare earths worldwide; thus, in the medium term, significant quantities of rare earths are expected to enter future waste streams.

Experts at Oeko-Institut are carrying out many projects focusing on questions of resource efficiency and recycling potentials of rare earths and other valuable metals. In the following, a number of these projects are presented.

Eight-point plan for an EU-wide rare earth recycling scheme

On behalf of The Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament and under the aegis of Reinhard Bütikofer, Oeko-Institut presented a comprehensive recycling strategy for conserving rare earths. So that an EU-wide recycling scheme for rare earths can be successfully implemented, the team of experts argues that, first of all, more research needs to be conducted on the refining and processing of rare earths in Europe. By means of a comprehensive material flow analysis, it was possible to close gaps in the data and acquire a broader knowledge of the material flows for rare earths in Europe.

In a second step the implementation of such a scheme needs to be tested. To this end, pilot products for recycling should be identified. A collection and pretreatment scheme for these products has to be created and integrated in existing recycling management processes. In pilot recycling facilities, knowledge can be gained about complex recycling processes and they can be tested. Further research and a European competence network with relevant actors from recycling companies, producers, competent authorities and policymakers and researchers could accompany the implementation process. Furthermore, financing risks associated with recycling facilities for rare earths would have to be addressed and the legal framework – especially on EU level – identified for the future recycling scheme.

Since 2011, policymakers on EU level have implemented some of these recommendations, e.g. two networks – European Rare Earths Competency Network (ERECON) and European Rare Earth (Magnet) Recycling Network (EREAN) – have been established. Oeko-Institut’s researchers are involved in both – on the steering committee as well as in diverse working groups.

Oeko-Institut’s press release “Rare Earths – a turning point for efficiency and recycling”

Oeko-Institut’s “Study on Rare Earths and Their Recycling”

A closer look at recycling potentials of rare earths in electric motors

In a current project being conducted on behalf of the Baden-Württemberg Ministry for the Environment, Climate and Energy Industry, the researchers have estimated potentials for the recycling of rare earths from permanent magnets of modern and highly efficient electric motors. In 2012, European companies produced up to two million electric motors with permanent magnets for use in industry. Approx. half of these were produced in Germany. Of these, approx. half of the magnets containing about 30 per cent rare earths are used in Germany in industrial plants; the other half are exported either directly or as part of machines and equipment.

For this quantity of electric motors with permanent magnets – set to further increase in the future – there is currently not sufficient collection and recycling of the valuable components, including the rare earth elements. As a result, the permanent magnets either land – after 30 years, at the latest – on the steel or copper scrap heap or are even discarded in household waste. Consequently, industry in Germany is not currently able to make use of approx. 35 to 40 tons of neodymium iron bore magnets.

These estimations were based on a survey of several hundred industrial companies in Baden-Wuettemberg. Oeko-Institut reached the conclusion that in the years ahead sustainable recycling concepts need to be developed which collect electric motors with permanent magnets and subject these to a targeted recovery process. Forecasts for 2030 show that approx. 100 tons of neodymium magnets would be disposed of in Germany and that with such quantities of rare earths the infrastructure for the collection, separation and recycling of the permanent magnets would need to be in place.

Oeko-Institut’s press release “Improving the recycling of rare earths in electric motors”

Oeko-Institut’s study “Analysis of rare earths: Permanent magnets used in industry in Baden-Wuerttemberg” (in German language)

Environmental damage caused by insufficient precautionary measures in mining

Last but not least, recycling plays an important role in environmental protection – after all, environmental risks are very common in the mining and further processing of rare earths: very large quantities of residues with toxic waste arise during the mining of rare earths. At the same time, most rare earth deposits contain thorium and uranium, which involve dangers such as the discharge of radioactivity into the air and water path and which are very demanding in terms of the long-term containment of waste. Without corresponding counter measures, mining in the rare earth deposits would lead to great harm to the environment and to disease among workers and residents.

This is also underscored in Oeko-Institut’s study on a new facility for refining the rare earth metals of the Lynas Corporation in Malaysia. This study, published in 2013, showed that the storage of radioactive and toxic wastes does not prevent leachate from exiting the facility and entering the soil and the groundwater. There is still no sustainable concept in place for the long-term disposal of waste under acceptable conditions of radiation protection. These and other examples show that rare earth mining often results in contaminated sites with huge environmental and health risks. Without a long-term waste management concept, subsequent generations will be burdened with the responsibility for the disposal.

Press release “Rare earth refining in Malaysia without coherent waste management concept”

Oeko-Institut’s study “Description and critical environmental evaluation of the REE refining plant LAMP near Kuantan/Malaysia”  

Sustainable mining and other strategies

In the view of Oeko-Institut’s experts, environmental regulations should be considered not only as regards the refining but also the mining of rare earths. In a new project, Oeko-Institut is analysing possible options for sustainable mining, particularly those that could be undertaken as cooperations within the scope of foreign policy. On behalf of the European Commission and in cooperation with Greenland, environmental and social questions relating to a possible cooperation of this kind are being addressed and answered.

It should also be analysed whether critical raw materials like rare earths can be replaced completely. In a different project, which is being conducted on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency and which began in 2014, Oeko-Institut is – in cooperation with its project partners – developing a roadmap for the substitution of critical raw materials in environmental technologies. This project aims to identify feasible ways in which such technologies can be expanded and ensured when alternative raw materials are used. The political recommendations thereby derived are geared to the further development of Germany’s national strategy on raw materials and of the German resource efficiency programme.