Germany is looking for solutions to recycle rare earth elements (REE)

Rising quantity of old mobile phones in German households Foto: BITKOM

Rising quantity of old mobile phones in German households
Foto: BITKOM

Rare earth elements (REE) are 17 elements* which can be naturally found in the earth crust. The demand for REEs has been rising the past years and is predicted to continue to grow in the near future. The consumption of REEs is expected to more than double from approx. 108,000 ton in 2006 up to 240,000 ton in 2020. Key technologies as wind mills, e-mobility, laser or communication technology utilizing REEs are increasing the demand. Dysprosium for example is an ingredient of permanent magnets which today are replacing among others the gear boxes in wind mills and neodymium is used for laser technology.

The German Mineral Resources Agency (DERA) reports that the quasi-monopoly of China, producing more than 95% of the worldwide production of REEs, raises the important issue of supply vulnerability to the industry.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) a natural consequence of the massive use of rare earth elements is also the increasing quantity of scrap metal containing the valuable REEs. This poses a new opportunity as the REEs in a ton of electronic scrap has been proven to be much higher than in a ton of ore.

Hence it becomes obvious that the interest of industry nations as Germany grows steadily to find or develop solutions to recycle REEs.

Until this date no large-scale technology has been found to recover REEs in an efficient way and REEs end up on the slag of a blast furnace or even on the domestic waste.

Lack of infrastructure on how to collect, for instance, all the electronic scrap and to separate the contained permanent magnets from the rest of the scrap is one of the main challenges on how to recycle REEs. Furthermore it is problematic that each device of electronic scrap (e.g. a smartphone) contains only a few milligram of a REE.

For more information please contact Arne Lüders (arne.luders@innovationnorway.no) at our Hamburg-office.

* scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium

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