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Is Recycling The Answer To Rare Earth Shortages?

  • The Rare Earths MMI has flattened after a sharp two-month drop, with minor fears over China's rumored COVID-19 wave and its potential impact on rare earth supplies.
  • The US considers rare earth elements (REEs) vital for its economy, national security, energy independence, and technological advancements.
  • Recycling has been proposed as a potential solution to meet REE demand, with only 1% of rare earth elements currently recycled from outdated items, but experts suggest that increased recycling efforts could meet up to a quarter of the demand over the next decade.
Rare earths

Via AG Metal Miner

After a sharp nosedive that lasted two months, the Rare Earths MMI (Monthly Metals Index) finally flattened out between May 1 and June 1. Ultimately, rare earth prices traded sideways and only moved down 1.02%.

Market fears rose after news that China is experiencing another wave of COVID-19, which could impact the availability of rare earth supplies. However, rumors of this new wave are yet to be confirmed, so its impact on supplies and logistics remains speculative.

Meanwhile, several countries continue to work to break their reliance on Chinese rare earths. Some are even going into direct competition with the Eastern superpower. As a result, the rare earths global market still finds itself in a somewhat volatile state, even after the recent flattening.

U.S. Possibly Facing a Rare Earth Crisis

Many experts say REEs are still vital to the U.S. economy’s future. Indeed, these minerals play a crucial part in national security, energy independence, and economic growth. If the United States ran out of rare earth supplies, it would likely impact all four of these areas significantly. For instance, the U.S. could not create modern technologies that need REEs, resulting in a general economic downturn. Furthermore, the U.S. will remain reliant on other nations for REE supplies, thus posing a national security danger.

Of course, REEs feature in many innovative technologies, including magnets, batteries, phosphors, and catalysts. Magnets, in turn, remain integral to a wide range of industries in the United States, including health care, transportation, power production, petroleum refining, and consumer electronics. As a result, experts anticipate that global demand for these important minerals will increase by 400% – 600% over the next several decades. The world’s conversion to a clean energy economy will only serve to boost this demand.  

Alternatives to Chinese Rare Earths Continue Popping Up

China still controls the majority of the market for cobalt, lithium, and, you guessed it, rare earth element processing and refining. In fact, as part of the 2018-2019 trade dispute between China and the United States, U.S. rare earth imports from China briefly became subject to 25% tariffs.

The United States designates 35 specific minerals, including the 17 rare earth elements, as critical to economic and national security. Moreover, a set of Presidential determinations authorized the Department of Defense (DoD) to use Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III Authority to forge agreements with businesses to strengthen the domestic REE supply chain.

While efforts to get more rare earth elements for the U.S. continue, the struggle has become increasingly difficult. That said, domestic companies report having found rare earth reserves in at least 19 states. As of this writing, many programs to expand domestic mining and processing capacity are currently underway.

Rare Earth Recycling a Possible Alternative

As mentioned in the Department of Energy’s 2022 supply chain report on neodymium magnets, experts anticipate that demand for REE magnets will rise dramatically. However, the U.S. administration remains concerned about the country’s reliance on China. Recycling is one potential remedy for the problem.

Currently, only around 1% of rare earth elements in outdated items are recycled. However, a strategic increase in recycling efforts could produce up to a quarter of the demand for rare earths over the next decade. This process entails removing rare earths from current high-tech items, such as hard disk drives, and converting them into powdered minerals (rare earth oxides). Acid-free dissolution recycling (ADR) and chemical recovery are two of the most promising recycling processes.

The Critical Materials Institute (CMI) has been working on ADR and chemical recovery of rare earth elements since 2016. Their procedure includes dissolving REE magnets in a solution without using acids. This makes the process a greener and more ecologically friendly approach overall. Ultimately, Recycling REEs from magnets would give producers a consistent, domestic source of rare earths while also minimizing waste.

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By Jennifer Kary via AGMetalminer.com

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