Tech Insights

Mitigating Supply Concerns: A Circular Economy for Rare-Earth Elements

August 03, 2023 by Claire Turvill

Introducing a circular economy for rare-earth elements that can eliminate environmental impact and mitigate supply concerns.

In engineering, a closed-loop system is a device designed to maintain a desired state or set point without human interference. In the world of sustainability, a closed-loop system is one with zero waste ‒ no materials leave “the loop” because products are reused to create new ones. This is also referred to as a circular economy.

 

Rare-earth materials

Rare-earth materials. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock
 

The most recent material needing a circular economy is rare-earth elements (REEs). The demand for REEs is expected to grow substantially by 2030, given their ubiquitous use in smartphones, plasma TVs, and, more importantly, as parts of wind turbines and electric motors. 

To meet REE demand and expected growth in clean energy, researchers from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) are looking for new ways to introduce a REE circular economy. 

 

Supply and Demand of Rare-Earth Elements

Rare-earth elements are a group of seventeen metallic elements; they are vital for over 200 products in various fields, particularly in high-tech consumer goods like cell phones, computer hard drives, electric vehicles, and flat-screen TVs. 

They also play a crucial role in defense applications, including electronic displays, guidance systems, lasers, radar, and sonar. Although the quantity of REE used in a product may seem small compared to its overall weight, value, or volume, these elements are essential for the device to function properly, making them a hot commodity in the tech world.

By 2030, the global use of REEs is expected to reach 315,000 tons ‒ five times the 2005 levels of 60,000 tons. A large percentage of the predicted growth will come from creating more renewable power systems; one megawatt of wind-powered energy requires 170 kilograms of REEs, and the average onshore wind turbine will generate around 6,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually. 

The issue, however, is that China, the U.S., and Russia most heavily control the supply and production of REEs. Countries are racing to control REEs, and exporting opportunities are being cut off. 

The U.S. and Europe face shortages and have deemed REEs critical raw materials. CGL Europe’s Materials & Products Taskforce has recently released a report, “Embracing circularity: A pathway for strengthening the Critical Raw Materials Act,” in response to the EU releasing its Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) in March.

 

Environmental Impact of Rare-Earth Elements

REEs are not naturally found in concentrated deposits. Miners must extract and process vast amounts of ore through physical and chemical means to condense and separate the REEs. This process has an intense environmental impact due to the substantial energy and water requirements throughout the value chain, which releases pollutants and carbon emissions. 

A recent U.S. study revealed that the refinement of a single ton of REE oxide can generate 1.4 tons of radioactive waste, a staggering 2,000 tons of waste material, and 1,000 tons of wastewater containing hazardous heavy metals.

Unfortunately, with a lack of policies or programs to incentivize REE recycling, only 1 percent of REEs are currently recycled globally. 

 

Proposal for a Circular Economy

Raimund Bleischwitz, a prominent expert in the circular economy at ZMT, has collaborated with colleagues from China and the U.S. to propose innovative solutions for enhancing global REE recycling. Their ideas have the potential to alleviate the geopolitical race surrounding REEs and contribute to resource conservation.

Their proposal outlines four levels of a circular economy: products, companies, networks, and policies. 

Products must be cleanly produced within a green supply chain and be recyclable and reusable, companies need to redesign their business models to value these products, the networks between companies and the customers who purchase their products need to be linked, and government policies are necessary to support this new market. 

According to Bleishwitz, circular economy policies can subdue the zero-sum mentality currently in the race for REEs. It also presents an opportunity to further international trade and global partnerships in preparation for the energy transition.

 

Closing the Loop

Currently, recycling REEs is a hazardous and laborious process requiring much energy. However, scientists are working to develop less energy-intensive and safer recycling methods to reduce the need for mining. 

Approaches range from using Gluconobacter bacteria to produce organic acids that will pull REEs out of expired catalysts to using copper salts to pull REEs from old magnets. 

 

Gluconombacter bacteria

Gluconombacter bacteria. Image used courtesy of Scient Direct 
 

A challenge for these recycling methods is scaling them for industrial use because opportunities for collecting trashed REE products do not exist.

Some experts say the best solution is to adapt product design to be inherently recyclable at the end of life. Ultimately, any recycling efforts that can be made will have a much greater impact than sending retired technology to the landfill.

Devices such as batteries in electric cars and magnets from wind turbines, which use REEs in high concentrations, will reach end-of-life within the next decade for some. Figuring out how to reuse REEs in the next generation of renewable power systems will cut long-term costs and reduce environmental impact by decreasing the demand for virgin materials.