The demand for rare earth metals has skyrocketed, so we are creating a safer and cleaner way to recycle them from old mobile phones and laptops. Rare earth metals are vital to the high-tech society we live in. It is a basic part of mobile phones, computers and many other everyday devices. However, increasing demand and limited global supply mean that we must urgently find a way to efficiently recover these metals from discarded products. Currently, rare earth metals are mined or recycled through traditional e-waste recycling. But there are some drawbacks, including high cost, environmental damage, pollution and human safety risks. This is the purpose of our ongoing research.Our team worked with the Tecnalia Research Center in Spain to develop a method for recycling rare earth metals using environmentally friendly chemicals. It involves a process called "electrodeposition" in which low currents cause metal to be deposited on the desired surface. This is important because if we scale up the process, we can reduce the pressure on global supply and reduce our reliance on mining.
Increasing demand for rare earth metals.Rare earth metals are a collective term for a group of 17 elements: 15 elements in the "lanthanide" in the periodic table, scandium and yttrium. These elements have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. The term "rare" refers to their uniform but scarce distribution around the world, and was noticed after they were first discovered in the late 18th century. These minerals are a key component of electronic devices and are essential to many green technologies. They are in the magnets of wind turbines and in the batteries of hybrid cars. In fact, using only one wind turbine requires as much as 600 kilograms of rare earth metals. In 15 years, the annual demand for rare earth metals has doubled to 125,000 tons. Due to the adoption of green technology and the continuous development of electronic technology, it is estimated that by 2030, the demand for rare earth metals will reach 315,000 tons. This puts tremendous pressure on global production.
Can't we just mine more rare metals? Currently, rare earth metals are mined through mining, which has many disadvantages.First, it is costly and inefficient, because even a very small amount of rare earth metals needs to be mined on a large scale.Second, the process may have a huge impact on the environment. Due to the co-extraction of thorium and uranium, the mining of rare earth metals will produce a large amount of toxic and radioactive substances, and radioactive metals will cause problems to the environment and human health.Third, most rare earth metal mining takes place in China, which accounts for more than 70% of global supply. This has raised concerns about long-term supply, especially after China threatened to restrict supply in 2019 during the Sino-US trade war.