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Rare earth metals may be lurking in your junk drawer

by SuperiorInvest

Common metals such as iron, copper and aluminum are already widely recycled. But only about 1 percent of the rare earths in old products are reused or recycled, researchers estimate. Instead, the world depends on mining for its supply of rare earths, about 70 percent of which comes from China, according to the United States Geological Survey.

For the latest study, researchers used models to forecast how reusing and recycling rare earths could change that. Scientists found that the United States, the European Union and Japan could eventually accumulate reserves of rare earths in their old electronics and other products that would far exceed what they would find by mining the earth.

Based on their model, the researchers predicted that, globally, reuse and recycling could reduce the need to mine neodymium, a rare earth element used in wind turbines, by 60 percent in 2050 compared to a line of normal basis. For dysprosium, also used in wind turbines, that figure was 67 percent.

The opportunity is there, but great challenges remain.

Rare earths are often combined with other metals, so extracting them can be difficult. Some rare earth recycling methods require dangerous chemicals and a lot of energy. Extracting the few grams, or even milligrams, of rare earths that are present in every vintage product can be a daunting task. And there aren’t many systems in place to collect electronics and other old items.

However, scientists are working to advance recycling techniques. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Innovation Center at Idaho National Laboratory, for example, are developing ways to use microbes instead of toxic chemicals to extract rare earths from old products. Companies like Apple are developing robots that help recover critical materials, including rare earths, from old iPhones. Twenty-five U.S. states and the District of Columbia already have recycling laws that require the collection of some used electronics, although most of the rare earths contained in those products are not recycled.

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