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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Global Demand for Critical Minerals Spurs Recycling Debate

  • Growing global demand for critical minerals, driven by renewable energy and battery production, highlights the potential of recycling electronics and batteries to recover these resources.
  • Recycling rare earth metals from old devices could potentially supply a significant portion of the demand for metals in the United States, China, and Europe by 2050.
  • The lack of comprehensive recycling laws and limited public awareness pose challenges to electronic recycling, but innovations like using microbes and robots are being explored to extract rare earths safely.
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There are big plans for the production of critical minerals to meet the rapidly growing demand as the world undergoes a green transition. Governments are starting to work together to develop their sustainable mining capabilities and ensure that they produce enough metals and minerals to respond to global needs. To support these efforts, many are now questioning whether we should be recycling our electronics and batteries to contribute to the production of critical minerals. 

People worldwide are sitting on millions of batteries and electronic devices that contain critical minerals that could be used to support the green transition. Millions around the globe have old lithium-ion batteries, mobile phones, laptops, and other devices sitting unused in storage. However, some now believe there should be a major drive to encourage people to recycle these products to support the critical minerals industry, as demand continues to rise. One of the major challenges to this recycling aim is the lack of a cohesive strategy to encourage consumers to recycle their electronics. 

The demand for critical minerals has risen substantially in recent years and is expected to continue increasing sharply as the global renewable energy capacity increases. A global green transition will require vast amounts of green energy equipment and battery power, which depend on a steady supply of critical minerals. Over the past two decades, the annual trade in energy-related critical minerals has increased from $53 billion to $378 billion. The battery sector is responsible for around 70 percent of the global demand for cobalt and uses large amounts of aluminium, copper, lithium, nickel, and rare earths. Meanwhile, renewable energy equipment requires a wide variety of critical minerals, supporting the development of core components for solar panels, wind turbines and much more. 

In addition to mining for critical minerals, an industry that is rapidly growing, there is also huge potential for the recycling of existing batteries and electronic devices to recover the still-intact critical minerals. Unlike fossil fuels, which when used are gone forever, rare earths can be recovered after use in lots of cases. A recent study suggests that reusing or recycling rare earth metals from old mobile phones, hard drives, electric motors and turbines could provide as much as 40 percent of the demand for metals in the United States, China and Europe by 2050. This is a particularly interesting prospect for the United States, which relies heavily on the import of critical minerals to meet its needs. 

Recycling could also alleviate the burden on the environment, as it could help reduce the expansive mining activities otherwise required to provide these minerals. And the need to recycle is going to become more apparent as consumers increasingly purchase battery-powered electric vehicles. Most of these batteries have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years, meaning that we could soon have thousands of discarded EV batteries unless recycling techniques improve. The practice has already been seen in some countries, with Japanese researchers coining the term urban mining to describe collecting rare metals from discarded appliances in the 1980s. While it is common for consumers to recycle their iron, copper and aluminium, is it less common to see rare earths being recycled. 

However, few countries are offering consumers straightforward access to recycling schemes. This is partially because it is difficult to extract rare earths from devices, with some recycling techniques requiring hazardous chemicals and lots of energy. Some countries and private companies are now exploring alternative ways to recover these metals safely. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Innovation Hub at the Idaho National Laboratory is exploring the use of microbes to extract rare earths. Meanwhile, Apple and other tech companies are creating robots to help in the recovery process. 

In the U.S., 25 states and the District of Columbia have recycling laws mandating the collection of certain electronic devices, although these efforts remain limited. So long as governments fail to provide straightforward recycling mechanisms, electronics will remain discarded in people’s junk drawers or, worse, go to landfills. The lack of comprehensive recycling laws and little public awareness means that many electronics continue to go directly to landfills once they can no longer be used, meaning huge amounts of rare earths are being lost every year. 

The development of clear international standards for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries and electronic devices could provide guidelines for countries worldwide to follow. This would also ensure that governments are following using best practices in their policy formation and recycling campaigns, to ensure the recycling methods support the critical minerals industry. This would also encourage cross-country idea sharing to advance the practice and, therefore, advance the global green transition. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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