The stability the rare earths
industry experienced between 2000 and 2009 was broken in
2011-2012 by surging panic in international markets, generated
by Chinas ban of rare earths exports to Japan and
tightening export quotas, following the territorial dispute
over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands.
As a result, rare earths prices
spiked over the course of a year, as markets feared a potential
supply shortage. Between June 2010 and August 2011, the average
price of cerium oxide (Ce2O3) surged by
2,400%, from $6/kg to $149.5/kg, while prices for neodymium
oxide (Nd2O3) and dysprosium
(Dy2O3) leapt by 991% and 700%, from
$33/kg to $360/kg and from $300/kg to $2,400/kg,
Three years later, the rare earths
market looks very different. Exports from China have remained
below the countrys quotas for the last two years, on the
back of depressed demand. In addition, the extremely fragmented
Chinese rare earths industry, characterised by hundreds of
small producers and a persisting illegal black market, meant
that a huge oversupply of rare earths has contributed to lower
prices, even below values seen in 2009.
Average prices for
Ce2O3, Nd2O3 and
Dy2O3 amounted to $5.25/kg, $77.5/kg and
$350/kg as of October 2014, according to the IM Prices
Outside China, in 2012, US-based
Molycorp Inc. restarted rare earths production at Mountain
Pass, California, and in February 2013, Lynas Corp. started
processing ore mined in Mount Weld, Australia, at its Lynas
Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Malaysia. Both companies are
targeting an annual production capacity of 20,000-23,000 tpa
rare earth oxides (REOs).
In the last year, persisting low
prices and sluggish demand hit Chinese rare earths producers,
with the worlds largest producer, Inner Mongolia Baotou
Steel Rare Earth Hi-Tech Co., seeing its profits fall by over
70% in H1 2014 and China Minmetals Rare Earth Co. posting a 94%
fall in its profits in the first quarter of this year.
The depressed market conditions
also hit Molycorp and Lynas, which have been struggling to turn
their rare earth businesses to profit since they entered
production, and have seen losses widen in the first half of
Japan, India and the US have
stockpiled rare earths, while Sumitomo Corp. and
Kazakhstans National Atomic Co. (Kazatomprom), have
recently started test production at a plant in Kazakhstan,
targeting a production capacity of 1,500 tpa REOs, which is
expected to expand to 3,000 tpa in 2015 and to 5,000-6,000 tpa
Meanwhile, junior companies started
to explore for rare earths resources outside China. According
to Gareth Hatch at Technology Metals Research, 429 new rare
earths projects are under development in the world, involving
261 companies and 37 countries outside China and India.
In March, the World Trade
Organization (WTO) ruled against Chinas rare earths and
tungsten export quotas, following a formal complaint filed by
the US, Europe and Japan in 2012.
In an analysis of the current
supply chain of rare earths published in February, the US
department of Defence (DoD) concluded that there is not a
supply risk and that market supply and demand conditions
overall have significantly improved in the US and
internationally since 2010 and 2011 turmoil in the rare earths
The report acknowledges that there
has been an 11.8% decrease in demand from 2010 to 2013 and that
the initial forecast growth has been revised downwards.
The DoD also said it saw no
shortfalls in the supply of rare earths ores and concentrates
for its own uses, adding that stronger demand is likely to
occur through 2015 and 2018.
While acknowledging the present
absence of a potential risk of shortages in rare earths supply,
the US DoD is sponsoring research in the reclamation of rare
earths from downstream products at the Critical Material
Institute (CMI), based at the Ames Laboratory in Iowa. The CMI
recently received $120m of funding from the US Department of
Energy (DoE) to develop projects to recycle rare earths from
Within the present rare earths
market conditions, it might be surprising that several
industries and countries are embarking on projects to study the
reclamation of rare earths from end-products and e-waste,
including lamp phosphorous, nickel-metal hydride (NiMH)
batteries and permanent magnets.
With the exception of fluorescent
light phosphors and nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, the
current state of the technology does not allow for an
economically feasible reclamation of rare earths, the DoD
However, there are other important
reasons that make recycling rare earths from downstream
industries an interesting perspective, which could ultimately
help the rare earths market to become more sustainable.
NdFeB magnet rising demand
Neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy)
rare earth elements are used in neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB)
permanent magnets. Dy substitutes Nd in the magnet composition
to increase the temperature stability of the magnet against
demagnetisation, but the content varies according to the
specification of the magnet. Typically, about 1% of Nd is
substituted with Dy in permanent magnet formulations.
Despite the present oversupply,
demand for rare earths is expected to increase in the near and
long-term future, due to their application in several high-tech
industries, including computers, mobile phones, light emitting
diodes (LED) and catalysts.
In particular, demand for NdFeB
magnets is expected to see a surge worldwide, due to their
application in green technologies including hybrid electric
vehicles (EVs) and wind turbines, which are expected to
experience rapid growth in China and the US in the medium to
According to consulting company,
Walter Benecki LLC, the NdFeB market will continue to grow,
with global production projected to expand from 63,000 tonnes
in 2012 to 78,000 tonnes in 2015, and from 50,000 tonnes to
65,000 tonnes in 2015 in China.
The US DoE estimates it will need
17,000 additional tonnes of didymium (Nd+Pr) oxide by 2015,
which translates into an additional 28,000 tonnes NdFeB
magnets, representing a 30-40% increase compared with the total
production in 2012.
China started new policies this
year in order to regulate its domestic rare earths market,
tackling illegal mining through thorough investigations and
promoting the formation of corporations in the rare earths
Beijing is resolute about
preserving Chinas rare earth natural resources and
mitigating the environmental pollution caused by the rare
earths industry. The Ministry of Industry and Information
Technology (MIIT) has pinpointed the development of downstream
products and industries as the strategic route to improve the
According to recently published
analysis by Dudley Kingsnorth, executive director of Industrial
Minerals Company of Australia (IMCOA), China could become a net
importer of REOs in the next five years, while focusing its
efforts on the production of permanent magnets, light phosphors
and other value-added products.
New mining projects come to play a
major role in assuring the supply of rare earths, but not all
of them are at a stage where they can enter production in the
next two years. Also, many have high costs due to the
energy-intensive processing required to extract the
For this reason, the electronics
industry has some concerns about a possible shortage of
critical rare earth elements, such as neodymium and dysprosium,
in the near future.
Recovery and recycling
Despite the large number of
projects under development worldwide, none of the junior
companies have entered the new production stage yet (although
some are processing saleable material from tailings). This is
because the recovery of rare earths, whether from new mining
projects or from tailings and mining by-products, is a complex
process with high energy and financial costs.
The production of rare earth
concentrates from ore requires flotation and pre-leaching
processes with large consumption of acids. In addition, rare
earths separation from the concentrate with the traditional
solvent extraction technique is a complex process, which
requires the use of several acid and organic solvents,
including kerosene, and multiple steps.
Colorado, US-based mineral
engineering consultants Lyntek Inc. have frequently discussed
this issue with IM (see July 2012:
Does it have to cost the earth? and
Processing 2013 Costing the Earth),
stressing the need to liberate REO from the gangue, or
host mineral, before attempting to separate the
REOs using magnetic, gravity, electrostatic or flotation
The type of processing method is
usually dictated by the composition of the ore, but also by
cost considerations and environmental regulations.
TSX-V listed Geomega Resources Inc.
has developed a new method to separate rare earths from a REO
mineral concentrate, which is still generated through a
conventional flotation and pre-leaching process of the ore from
its Montviel mine in Quebec, Canada.
During the process, charged
particles and ions migrate in the separation channel
perpendicular to the flow, under the effect of the electric
field, Kiril Mugerman, head of corporate development at
Geomega Resources, told IM.
The speed of migration
depends on the electrophoretic mobility of the particles and
ions, which varies based on charge and size, he
The size of the ion makes a big
difference, Mugerman told IM. Impurities in
the concentrate can be separated very well from the rare earths
in the free flow electrophoresis (FFE) process, owing to a
great difference in size. They separate very fast, completely
independently, without interfering with the rare earths
Some channels will get only
one rare earth element with 100% purity, with no other ions,
some other channels will get a mixture. Those can be just
re-run through the process in order to further separate the
ions, he said.
According to Mugerman, the
technique will have the advantage of simplifying the recovery
of neodymium and praseodymium at high purity, as it is very
difficult to separate neodymium and praseodymium from a
didymium (Nd+Pr) mixture with solvent extraction
The company explained that
electricity becomes its only input in the separation stage of
rare earths processing, which makes no use of multiple chemical
The lack of organic solvents has a
very positive impact on the mitigation of environmental risks
in addition to reducing operating costs, according to
Mugerman said Geomega sees
potential to attain 100% purity and complete recovery with no
special adjustments required based on rare earth element
distribution of concentrate.
The method could be applicable to
many different types of concentrates, including those produced
from mine tailings, by-products and end products waste - such
as hard disk drives - containing rare earths, according to the
Recovery of rare earths from
by-products and mine tailings might become an economically
feasible approach to fast-tracking entrance into
Other projects looking at recycling
Canadian junior Orbite Aluminae
Inc. is developing a process to recycle rare earths as a
by-product of its high-purity alumina (HPA) produced from its
aluminous clays in Quebec, Canada. The company is planning to
extract the minerals from the liquid solution left behind in
the process to produce HPA.
Japan-based Nippon Light Metal
launched a pilot plant in February 2013 to study the
possibility of extracting rare earths from red mud waste from
bauxite deposits in Jamaica.
The plant, which was temporarily
halted in August this year due to the presently depressed rare
earths market, will treat 30 tonnes of dry red mud with acid in
order to test the recovery of rare earths from bauxite
Canadian junior Medallion Resources
is planning to recover rare earths from monazite mineral sands
in the Gulf States. The company signed a memorandum of
understanding (MoU) with Takamul Investment Co., a subsidiary
of Oman Oil Co., and it is planning to build a rare earths
separation plant, expecting to bring it into production within
three years from receiving permits and approvals.
In the US, tailings at
Molycorps Mountain Pass rare earths deposit in California
contain approximately 3-5% REOs, according to the DoD.
Monazite and xenotime reserves at
the Pea Ridge iron mine, in Missouri, host an average
concentration of 20.3% REOs, with estimated reserves of over
200,000 tonnes REOs, according to the Missouri Department of
Recycling from NdFeB magnets
Meanwhile, the US Geological Survey
(USGS) estimated that of the 90,400 tonnes of rare earths
produced in 2011, 65% went to landfill, 23% to construction
aggregate and 9% to downgrade use, while less than 1% was
Recycling rare earths is an
energy-intensive process that requires complex steps and large
amounts of chemicals, which need to be disposed of. For some
products such as cerium and lanthanum the process may not be
economically feasible due to their present low prices.
According to the DoE, the market
has concerns on the supply of five critical rare earths, namely
neodymium (Nd), dysprosium (Dy), europium (Eu), terbium (Tb)
and yttrium (Y), and about one third of the rare earth tonnage
is of high enough value to be recycled, according to the
International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI).
Waste products from the electronics
industry can be a valuable source of neodymium and dysprosium,
which are contained in permanent magnets. According to Arnold
Magnetic Technologies, hard disk drive (HDD), compact disks
(CD) and DVD systems accounted for 14% of the global Nd demand
in 2010, which is expected to rise to 16% in 2015.
According to Volker Zepf from the
University of Ausburg, Germany, there is a theoretical
recycling potential for the magnets in HDDs, by recovering Nd
and Dy either from the scrap in the manufacture of the magnets,
during which up to 30% of rare earths can be lost, or from
end-of-life (EoL) products.
A simplified recycling flow sheet
for NdFeB magnets considers recycling from the scrap - also
called swarf - originated during the manufacturing process,
from small magnets in EoL products and large magnets in hybrid
and EVs and wind turbines (see figure 1).
Direct recycling of the magnets is
only useful for large magnets, while for small magnets
contained in loudspeakers, mobile phones and HDDs,
pre-processing is needed in order to dismantle the magnets -
the resin bonded magnet in the spindle motor and the sintered
magnet in the voice coil motor - from the end-products.
As nearly all waste electronics and
electrical equipment (WEEE) is presently shredded at its EoL,
the magnets are powdered in the process and end up sticking to
the ferrous waste contained in the shredder, which makes
separation difficult. De-magnetisation of the magnets by
heating above 3000C, or applying opposite magnetic
fields is needed to allow separation, an operation which
increases the energy costs of the process.
Specialised automatic techniques
seem to be more economical than manual separation. Japanese
NdFeB manufacturer Hitachi announced in 2012 that it was
developing a recycling process to recover Nd from HDD and air
The University of Birmingham
conducted studies in 2012 to separate sintered rare earth
magnets by hydrogen gas, with separation efficiencies of around
95% on small scale trials.
Following the shredding, recovery
of Nd from the magnets is achieved by applying typical
hydrometallurgical routes, which require large amounts of
leaching agents, mainly hydrochloric (HCl), nitric
(HNO3), sulphuric (H2SO4)
acids and caustic soda (NaOH), that need to be disposed of
Rhone-Poulenc, now Rhodia-Solvay
Group, developed a method to recover samarium and cobalt from
SmCo magnets and swarf using a hydrometallurgical process in
1994. The US Bureau of Mines developed a sulphuric acid-based
aqueous process to recover Nd from NdFeB magnets in the same
Alternative routes to recover
neodymium in permanent magnets include pyrometallurgical
processing, electroslag refining, liquid metal extraction,
glass slag method and gas-phase extraction.
In 2000, the Ames Laboratory
developed a process based on a liquid-solid reaction system to
recycle rare earths from Nd2Fe2B magnets
and other alloys, using magnesium as an extraction reagent.
This year, the Anhui University of
Technology in China and the University of Delft in the
Netherlands developed a process to recycle Nd, Dy and Pr from
NdFeB magnets scrap using molten magnesium chloride and
potassium chloride. The researchers achieved recovery rates of
86.6% Nd, 89.2% Pr and 79.7% Dy running the process for three
hours at 1,0000C.
The use of a specific process to
recover rare earths in permanent magnets often depends on the
size and composition of the magnets.
Recycling Nd from NdFeB magnets
contained in HDDs could account for 10,000-14,000 tonnes Nd
globally, according to Zepf, with 25% contribution from North
America and Europe and 50% contribution from Asia-Pacific.
Despite steady growth in mobile
phone demand, a 100% recovery of rare earths in magnets
contained in these products would account for a total of 3,000
tonnes rare earths, according to Zepf, who forecast that about
5,200 tonnes Nd could be recovered from wind turbine generator
permanent magnets by 2020.
Estimates of the use of permanent
magnets containing Nd and Dy in hybrid and EVs indicate a total
amount of 1,250 tonnes Nd and 450 tonnes Dy will be absorbed by
the automotive markets in Germany and the US, and 4,200 tonnes
Nd and 1,450 tonnes Dy in the global automotive market, by
Recycling from NiMH
Spent NiMH batteries contain about
36-42% nickel and 8-10% mischmetal, a mixture of La, Ce, Nd and
Pr, which have high hydrogen storage capacity.
In 2011, Umicore and Rhodia
developed a solvent extraction based process to recycle rare
earths from NiMH batteries. An industrial pilot plant has been
operation near Antwerp, Belgium, since September 2011, with an
annual capacity of 7,000 tpa rare earths. The company can
process more than 350,000 tonnes of electronic waste, including
photovoltaic cells, computer circuits and mobile phones.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd and Japan
Metals & Chemicals announced in 2012 they had established a
recycling plant to extract rare earths in NiMH from Honda (H)EV
vehicles using molten salt electrolysis, which can remove about
80% of the original material.
Recycling from lamp
Lamp phosphors are a rich source of
heavy rare earths such as europium, terbium and yttrium, and
have the advantage of a more straightforward recycling process
compared with permanent magnets, according to Koen Binnemans,
research scientist at the University of Leuven, Belgium.
Processes to recycle individual
phosphors are based on physicochemical separation or chemical
attack through hydrometallurgical routes. Red phosphor
Y2O3:Eu3+ has the highest
intrinsic value as it contain large concentrations of yttrium
However, a major issue in recycling
rare earths from lamp phosphors is the removal of mercury,
which is highly toxic.
In most countries, rare earths are
not recycled from EoL lamp phosphors, which are landfilled or
stored in containers.
A two-liquid flotation process,
which was developed by the Waseda University and the University
of Tokyo, Japan, in 2008 reported successful reclamation of
Y2O3:Eu3+, with purity and
recovery levels higher than 90%.
In 2010, Rhodia developed a flow
sheet to recover rare earths from a mixture of halophosphate
and rare earth phosphors, using HNO3, NaOH and
molten sodium carbonate (NaCO3). Rhodia planned to
build two facilities at La Rochelle and Saint-Fons, France, to
recover rare earths from EoL fluorescent lamps.
Siemens former subsidiary,
OSRAM, developed a process to recover all rare earths from used
phosphors using several selective leaching steps after
mechanical separation of the coarse parts of the EoL
fluorescent lamps in 2012.
Despite some successful
achievements, recycling rare earths from downstream waste
products of the high-tech industry - also known as urban mining
- is not a consolidated process and several projects have been
developed to establish its economic feasibility and industrial
Marcus Reuter, director of
technology management at Finnish engineering group Outotec Oyj,
told IM earlier this year that in order to
boost low recycling rates the rare earths industry needs to
shift from a material-centred to a product-centred
The difficulty of recycling rare
earths in e-waste is due to the fact that the designed
mineralogy found in manufactured products is often more
complicated than the simple primary mineralogy of geological
deposits, Reuter said.
Improving recycling rates will
allow the rare earths industry to take advantage of recycling
not only against potential supply shortages, but more as a
complementary strategy to reduce supply/demand imbalance and
boost prices of REOs and end-products, guaranteeing more
However, owing to the low
concentrations of rare earths in high-tech products and the
complexity of their extraction from EoL products, recycling
will not be able to meet global rare earths demand in a market
where global consumption of a resource grows at a rate of more
than 1% per annum.
Meanwhile, the presently depressed
rare earths market is not putting pressure on end-users to seek
alternative sources for these minerals, and new projects
outside China are likely to enter into production only after
However, the large cost of these
projects in terms of processing, waste management and shipping
rare earths might be an increasing burden for downstream
Moreover, rare earth mining
projects that extract critical dysprosium and yttrium from
xenotime or monazite contain radioactive thorium and uranium as
by-products, that need to be handled and disposed of.
The decay process of the two
radioactive elements thorium and uranium can also generate
other isotopes such as radium, radon, actinium and
protactinium, which could leak into rare earth carbonates in
the processing stages.
This adds an extra level of process
complication in the production of rare earths from primary
sources, increasing costs and probability of mineral
Reclamation of rare earths from
e-waste represents a solution to these problems, as there are
no radioactive by-products in EoL gadgets.
The most positive benefit of rare
earths reclamation in the downstream industry is the
possibility to solve what is known as the
balance-problem - the need to maintain an equal
demand and supply of individual rare earth elements at any
time, due to the co-presence of rare earths in geological
This is clearly not possible, as
different elements have different applications in different
markets. For instance, while demand for neodymium and
dysprosium in permanent magnets is projected to steadily
increase in the near future, the use of yttrium and europium in
red phosphors is expected to decrease as the market is already
developing rare earth-free substitutes.
The problem is further exacerbated
by the fact that rare earth elements occur in different ratios
in mineral deposits, with cerium and lanthanum being far more
abundant than neodymium and dysprosium. This implies that
mining rare earths will almost always produce large amounts of
lanthanum, and cerium, which need to be sold to prevent
Recycling critical rare earths such
as neodymium and dysprosium from end-products will prevent
additional mining of light REOs, however, limiting their
oversupply in the long term.
The balance problem explains
why even for countries with large primary rare earth resources,
such as China, recycling of rare earths is becoming an
issue, Binnemans said.
A drastic improvement in EoL
recycling rates for rare earths is a strategic necessity, even
more so in countries possessing no or few rare earth
deposits, he added.
According to Binnemans, this is
possible only by developing fully integrated recycling routes
to increase recycling rates.
These are determined by collection
rate of old scrap and the recovery rate - the recycling process
Binnemans forecast global recycling
rates to vary from 32-56% by 2020, on the basis of global
collection and recovery rates estimates in three main
end-products such as permanent magnets, NiMH batteries and lamp
In order to increase global
collection rates Binnemans urges legal enforcement, collection
schemes and international co-operation within urban mining
In addition, more efficient and environmentally-friendly
flow sheets, including dismantling, sorting, pre-processing and
extraction processes can increase recovery rates.