WORCESTER, Mass., Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Rare earth elements are needed to make a wide range of products -- from everyday objects like energy efficient light bulbs and smartphones to advanced technologies like industrial lasers and medical imaging devices.
But rare earth elements are named so for a reason. Scarcity has become a problem as more technologies require their mining.
Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts are in the process of developing a sustainable domestic supply of rare earth elements. Engineers there have developed a technique for recovering rare earth elements from the engines of junked electric and hybrid cars.
The technology could offer a cheaper and eco-friendly alternative to the United States' reliance on China for rare earth metals.
Recently, scientists tested their methods on an all-electric Chevrolet Spark. The car's drive unit was shredded, and then treated using a two-step chemical extraction process. The method successfully separated neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium from the car's electric motor and other drive train components.
Researchers were also able to recover other recyclable pieces like steel chips.
"The fact that China has the majority of operable separation facilities in the world is a huge problem for the United States," WPI professor Marion Emmert said in a press release. "Large car manufacturers are dependent on the magnets composed of these elements for car production, so it's really critical for rare earth recovery and separation technologies to take hold here."
Emmert is the lead author of a new paper on the method, published this week in the journal Green Chemistry.
"In the last 20 years, the United States has lost knowledge and expertise on how to mine, recover, and separate these materials," Emmert added. "We're hoping that starts to change and that the United States becomes less dependent on foreign countries to recover rare earth elements."