Waste: the next major source of rare earth minerals?

Sensemaking / Waste: the next major source of rare earth minerals?

27 Jan 2011

As China limits its export of rare earth minerals, Japanese and American firms look for alternative sources

Some of the most innovative steps in recycling are driven by a supply crunch. And that's the story of the Dowa Mining Plant in Kosaka, northern Japan. It had been out of action for 20 years. But now, following China's decision to limit export of the rare earth minerals it produces (currently 97% of global supply), Dowa's furnaces are roaring once more. Only this time, there's no ore or copper in sight – just mountains of expired electronics, and sacks full of computer chips.

Chopped into small pieces before being melted at 1,400°C, these abandoned mobile phones and laptops become a molten stew, rich in valuable and rare earth metals such as indium and antimony, used in liquid crystal displays and photovoltaic silicon wafers respectively. Some gold, even, has been recovered. Over 300 tonnes of electronic material must be melted to yield just 150 grams of rare earth metals.

Of course, China may not always have such a near monopoly on rare earths. The company US Rare Earths Inc recently claimed that it had found important reserves in Idaho and Montana, and Boeing announced its intention to use remote sensing technology to map all available or hidden rare earth elements in the US. But some will be keeping their fingers crossed against any major finds.

As energy expert David Fulford explains, the shift towards a "cyclic approach, in which as much as possible is recycled, and supplies are [only] topped up from resources that need to be mined, [is] a clear improvement on [today's] linear system, where all resources for manufactured goods come from mined raw materials." 

- Sam Jones

Image credits: bonchan / shutterstock

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