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Recycling seen as way to bolster U.S. rare-earth element supply, go greener

The date of: 2022-04-18
viewed: 15


BANGOR, Maine, March 22 (UPI) -- To go green -- to build a carbon-neutral economy and achieve net-zero emissions -- the United States will need a lot more rare-earth elements, experts say.

REEs, sometimes called rare-earth metals, are used to make a variety of electronics, from iPhones to MRI machines. They're also vital to produce many of the most important green energy technologies, including solar arrays, wind turbines and electric car batteries.

As a result of the growing consumer electronics market and expected green energy transition, the White House predicts the demand for cobalt, lithium and REEs to increase between 400% and 600% over the next few decades.

A majority of these rare-earth elements, with names like cerium, yttrium, gadolinium, lanthanum and neodymium, are sourced largely from overseas. But the Biden administration and many policymakers want to develop a domestic supply of rare-earth metals to meet growing demand and ease supply chain problems.

Due to financial and environmental constraints, however, rare-earth metal mining opportunities in the United States are limited. Only one domestic mine and processing facility, Mountain Pass in California's Mojave Desert, yields rare-earths at significant quantities.

Recycling waste for supply chains

New technologies and shifting market dynamics could alter the calculus, allowing for rare-earths to be extracted directly from the ground. In the meantime, federal policymakers hope to take advantage of all the REEs trapped inside discarded computers, batteries and other types of waste.

Last year, a federal review of supply chain problems recommended that the government bolster REE recycling efforts. Now, policymakers are heeding that advice.

In February, the White House announced several billion dollars in funding for the 'production, processing and recycling of critical minerals and materials.'

These funds include several million dollars for battery recycling facilities and an experimental effort to 'recover rare-earth elements and critical minerals from coal ash and other mine waste.'

'Now that we have this massive supply chain issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, there's been a big push to chemically separate and recycle these materials,' Megan O'Connor, co-founder and CEO of metals processing company Nth Cycle, told UPI.

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