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Research Platform for the Advanced Recycling and Reuse of Rare Earths (RAREł)

The RAREł Platform

This KU Leuven funded project is focused on breakthrough recycling processes based on non-aqueous technology for the two main applications of rare earths: permanent magnets and lamp phosphors, which represent >70% of the rare earths market by value. By recycling the REEs from phosphors and magnets one specifically targets the five most critical rare earths: Nd, Eu, Tb, Dy and Y. This work is part of a more general objective to create fully integrated, closed-loop recycling flow sheets for rare-earth magnets and phosphors. Concurrently, a consequential life cycle analysis (LCA) has to be carried out for the recycling of rare earths in magnets and lamp phosphors.

State-of-the-Art and beyond

The rare earths or rare-earth elements (REEs) are a group of 17 elements in the periodic system, including neodymium (Nd), europium (Eu), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy) and yttrium (Y). China is presently producing more than 97% of the global production of the rare earths, although the country possesses less than 40% of the proven reserves of these metals. China is not only mining rare earths, but the country is also specialised in the extraction of rare earths from ores, in the separation of concentrates of rare earths in the individual elements, and in the production of rare-earth permanent magnets and lamp phosphors from purified rare-earth elements.

Since 2004 rare earths have become increasingly important, because of their essential role in permanent magnets, lamp and phosphors, catalysts and rechargeable batteries. The increasing popularity of hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines and compact fluorescent lamps is causing an unprecedented increase in the demand and price of rare earths. In fact, the green economy cannot further develop without rare earths. China’s domestic demand of rare earths has been growing so fast during the last years that it is predicted that China itself will consume its entire annual production by 2012 or, at latest, from 2014 on. Since a few years, China is strictly regulating the export of rare earths. These export quota cause serious problems for consumers of rare earths outside China, and also for the development of a more sustainable economy.

The positive side of the export quota is that China forces other regions to elaborate on self-sufficiency which contributes to the sustainable use of REEs. Mining companies are now actively seeking for new exploitable rare earths deposits and old mines will be reopened. For instance, the Mountain Pass Mine in California will restart production in 2012. In its landmark report Critical Raw Materials for the European Union (2010), the European Commission considers the rare earths as the most critical, with the highest supply risk. On 13 March 2012, the United States, Europe and Japan have joined forces for the first time to challenge China's restrictions on exports of rare earths, with a formal complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Although Europe has some potentially exploitable natural resources of rare earths (for instance the Norra Karr complex in Sweden) and has access to secondary waste streams (for instance bauxite residues and phospho-gypsum), recycling of rare earths from pre-consumer scrap and (often complex, multi-material) End-of-Life products (“urban mining”) is a strategic necessity. Recycling can avoid the problems associated with radioactive thorium and uranium impurities in rare-earth ores and recycling requires much less energy input than primary mining activities. However, as recently pointed out in the influential UNEP report Recycling Rates of Metals (2011), less than 1% of the rare earths are currently being recycled, mainly due to inefficient collection, technological problems and (until now) lack of incentives.

Furthermore, used permanent magnets and other rare-earth-containing waste are currently shipped back to China, resulting in a significant loss of valuable resources. A drastic improvement in End-of-Life recycling rates for REEs in Europe is, therefore, an absolute necessity, in line with the goals of the EU’s Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (2011). This can only be realised by developing new efficient recycling routes. It is evident these routes have to minimise the overall environmental impacts of the processing and use of REEs and that shifts of impacts to other elements and resources are not allowed. This can be studied by consequential LCA, which is a rather new development within the LCA field and still needs further scientific underpinning. Only a few LCA studies on specific applications of REEs have been published to date, and none of them deals with the environmental impact and consequences of recycling.

Finally, it should be realised that recycling activities have to be complemented with new environmentally friendly separation technologies and with expertise to convert pure rare-earth oxides into new magnet alloys or lamp phosphors.

Synergies

The IRF-KP RARE3 consortium merges four essential components that are relevant for a successful KP:

  • Scientific strength: The scientific coordinator is a world-leading expert in REE chemistry. Furthermore, the other (engineering) promoters have an excellent track record in the domains of pyrometallurgy, hydrometallurgy and electrochemistry, which will be used and developed as tools for REE recycling.
  • Interdisciplinarity. Chemists, chemical engineers, metallurgists, materials scientists will be working together with economists and LCA experts to tackle the problem of rare-earth recycling.
  • Tech transfer strength: The consortium consists of 2 experienced IRF Officers with a proven track record.
  • Keen industrial interest: 27 companies grouped into a User Committee.
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