Rare Earth Demand Drives Better Recycling Methods

New, cleaner ways are being developed to re-cycle rare earth metals to make sure we are making best use of this extremely valuable resource.

Critical to the operation of mobile devices, the drive for rare earth metals is leading to disastrous effects on the environment. To alleviate the enormous environmental impact of mining rare earths, we need to find new ways to re-cycle the rare earth metals in existing products.

Using environmentally friendly chemicals, Deakin University are working on a way to recover rare-earth metals using a process called “electrodeposition”, in which a low electric current causes the metals to deposit on a desired surface.

This is in direct opposition to traditional e-waste recycling, which has a high cost, causes environmental damage and poses risks to human safety. Extracting rare earth metals also has a hugely negative impact on the natural environment when they are extracted and the humans who recover them.

Have you seen the huge open mines that leave huge gouges on the surface of our planet? Huge industrial machines moving millions of tons of dirt to find what is a group of 17 elements: 15 from the “lanthanides series” in the periodic table, as well as the elements scandium and yttrium.

When taking rare earth metals from the ground, huge areas must be mined because the metals are not concentrated in the same way as something like coal, which can be found in seams. Due to this situation, radioactive materials like thorium and uranium are extracted with the rare earths and must be separated.

Thus, recycling could help with this situation if it can be done in a more efficient and sustainable way. Currently, we must use corrosive chemicals and heat to extract rare earth metals from circuit boards which is an extremely toxic way to do it.

This new more sustainable way of recycling rare earth metals could be the answer to our currently toxic recycling methods. If it can also help reduce the amount of rare earth metals extracted, which was around 171,000 tonnes in 2019, that has to be good news for the planet.