Rare Earth Elements have become extremely important to our world because of their unique magnetic, phosphorescent and catalytic properties.
These elements are found in modern technology ranging from cell phones and televisions to LED light bulk and wind turbines. Unfortunately, there is no known equal substitute for REEs at this time.
But what is most problematic is that as our technology needs increase, so does the demand for rare elements. This has resulted in a significant shortage across the globe, which is currently hindering the growth of renewable technology.
But before we delve into that, let’s first start with the basics…
What are Rare Earth Elements?
Rare earth elements are a group of seventeen metallic elements, consisting of the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table, including scandium and yttrium, which have similar properties and are often found in ores and deposits.
REEs includes light REEs (LREEs) such as lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium and heavy REEs (HREEs) gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium and yttrium.
Most of these elements are not rare in terms of the amount in the earth’s crust. However, they are rarely found in sufficient abundance in a single location when mining to be economically viable.
Why are they important?
Rare earth elements are key components in many electronic devices that we use in our daily lives and in a variety of industrial applications.
This includes many applications and high tech products such as smartphones, digital cameras, computer hard disks, fluorescent and light-emitting-diode (LED) lights, flat-screen televisions, computer monitors, and electronic displays. In addition, large quantities of some REEs are also found in clean energy and defence technologies.
Rare earth elements are crucial components of electronic devices and vital for many green technologies. For example:
– Neodymium is a silvery metal that is very important in renewable energy. When combined with iron and boron, it makes powerful magnets that are crucial for developing wind generators and electric vehicles.
– Copper is basically in anything with an on-off switch, thanks to its incredible ability to conduct electricity.
– Lithium is a crucial element to all rechargeable batteries and is needed when building massive renewable energy infrastructure for storage capacity to go with it.
What is the demand for Rare Earth Elements?
The annual demand for rare earth elements has doubled to 167 000 tonnes in the last 15 years and is estimated to grow to 280 000 tonnes by 2030. This demand has increased due to the uptake of green technologies, creating enormous pressure on global productions.
REE remains critical in various applications with future demand to increase with the drive of renewable energy through e-mobile and wind power.
China is set to continue dominating global markets by strengthening its supply chain and increasing its use of REEs in e-mobile with the growth of NdPr oxide in Neodymium Iron Boron (NdFeB) magnets used in EVs.
The growth of NdFeB magnets since 2005 has been attributed to the increase in the automotive industry. EVs have grown from 450 000 in 2015 to almost 3.2 million units in 2020, with a forecast of worldwide expansion predicted to grow to 34 million by 2030.
Are Rare Earth Elements sustainable?
Given the demand for REEs, the question is, how can we recycle products that contain REEs to make this a more sustainable product?
With hundreds of thousands of tonnes of REEs products being produced each year, recycling currently remains the most sustainable strategy to reduce primary demand.
For instance, recycling metals from the end of life batteries has the greatest opportunity to reduce the demand for battery metals, including cobalt, lithium, nickel and manganese.
An ideal solution to reduce the demand for REEs in wind power and EV markets would also be to reuse and recycle existing rare-earth magnets. Retired wind turbines and EV motors are a source for recycled REEs. This is because their magnets are relatively large and can be recovered with ease. In some cases, large magnets can also be reused and do not need to undergo the recycling process.
Many EV and battery manufacturers have also been proactive in establishing recycling initiatives and improving the efficiency of battery technologies.
Improving the efficiency of materials used can also reduce the primary demand for REEs in solar PV. The solar industry has already made a significant improvement in minimising the demand for materials, improving performance, and reducing cost.
However, the solar PV industry needs to engage further in recycling to avoid future waste streams and recover more REEs from the process.
Currently, recycling REEs remains a lengthy process that involves demagnetisation, crushing and roasting, followed by a leaching process and a separation method before a final roasting to produce a mixed rare earth oxide.
Hopefully, as our understanding of REEs increases, we will be able to reduce the recycling process to make it more efficient and sustainable long-term.
All in all, REEs are a critical part of renewable technology and will help us to reach net-zero by 2050. As the world’s supply of rare metals diminishes, the need for them increases.
Our greatest opportunity to reduce the primary demand for REEs is to recycle and reuse the materials used in wind, solar and EVs.