Through a variety of funding efforts, federal policymakers hope to bolster the nation's ability to recover rare-earth elements from discarded electronics and old batteries. Photo by Max Pixel
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.
Rare-earth elements not that rare
"The rare-earths are a relatively abundant group" of 17 elements, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Still, rare-earths are difficult to extract and isolate, limiting commercial supplies. Most REE extraction and processing operations utilize either hydrometallurgical or pyrometallurgical technologies. Both methods are energy intensive and come with significant environmental risks.
In Asia, mines and REE processing facilities face more-relaxed environmental regulations, allowing them to operate for longer periods of time and ensure investors make their money back.
Nth Cycle has developed an alternate method that uses electricity to separate valuable rare-earths from both electronic waste and freshly mined ore.
The company, which recently raised $12.5 million in venture capital funding, is preparing to unveil its technology at commercial scale after extensive lab testing.
To start, Nth Cycle expects its technology to be used to separate REEs from old batteries, but O'Connor hopes to use her company's proprietary methods to mine other types of electronic waste.
"The technology is adaptable to a lot of different source materials," she said.
It also travels more easily -- to where devices rich in rare-earths are located.
"One of the problems in the United States is that these devices are very distributed, or decentralized, while most of these methodologies that are used to process these materials require centralization," O'Connor said.
"Our system is very modular. We can go to wherever the waste is. We can process it right on site."
Challenges of collection, recycling
Old batteries and other types of electronic waste are piling up at small family-owned scrap collection facilities across the country -- businesses that make money by taking waste liabilities off the books of major producers for an up-front fee.
"Those folks are now realizing that they have a lot of value in those battery packs that they've been collecting for 20 years," O'Connor said.
Unless federal authorities fund the development of collection and consolidation infrastructure, the disconnect between scattered electronic-waste stockpiles and centralized processing facilities is likely to remain a hinderance to REE recycling.
"The infrastructure and systems needed to achieve REE reprocessing are severely underdeveloped," a report published last year by the University of Pennsylvania concluded.
While many recycling advocates agree that the federal government should take on a more active role in building up electronic-waste collection and consolidation infrastructure, some suggest the financial and logistical burden should ultimately fall on producers.
This burden is unlikely to be assumed voluntarily, Scott Cassel, chief executive officer and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, told UPI. That is why his group and others support more comprehensive "extended producer responsibility" laws.
"Public funding for the infrastructure is helpful in developing the groundwork needed," Cassel said. "But it's one thing to set up the collection system. It's another to pay for its ongoing operation and maintenance.
"The producers of these batteries and products need to take a greater responsibility for what happens to the products they put on the market," Cassel said. "They need to take greater responsibility for what happens upstream, how raw materials are sourced, and downstream, at the end of a product's shelf life."
A couple of dozen states have passed EPR laws, but the patchwork of legislation is insufficient, Cassel said. In Europe, EPR laws are stronger and more comprehensive.
"Europe is ahead of us in terms of regulations that require their OEMs to figure out ways to recycle their products," O'Connor said.
At the moment, federal EPR legislation isn't on the docket, although the Biden administration and the Department of Energy have opted to fund research and pilot programs to construct of facilities to do this work.
Beyond battery recycling
Federal policymakers don't just want to see old batteries mined for REEs. They're also hoping rare-earths processors can find a way to wrench valuable minerals from coal ash and other types of industrial waste.
Last month, the Energy Department issued a request for information from industry leaders, developers and research institutions that will help the agency build the nation's first facility capable of extracting cobalt, nickel and REEs from fossil fuel waste.
While recycling efforts can avoid some of the environmental risks posed by mining, REEs processing isn't exactly green. As well, the handling of fossil fuel waste, whether being disposed of or recycled, the risk of environmental damage lingers.
The Environmental Protection Agency is cooperating with the Energy Department's efforts.
"A key aspect of EPA's work in this area will be to ensure the statutes and regulations it implements are considered fully in all actions taken by other agencies," an agency representative told UPI.
In the past, the EPA has encouraged reuse of coal ash in producing construction materials.
"Reuse, when done properly, can produce positive environmental, economic and product benefits, such as reduced use of virgin resources, lower greenhouse gas emissions from materials extraction and improved strength and durability of materials," the EPA said.
Some have their doubts
"Coal ash's critical mineral content is extremely low," O'Connor said. "The price of critical minerals would need to spike, or there would need to be generous government incentives, to make recovering them from coal ash viable -- even with our super-efficient technology."
Recycling often is sold as a way to avoid the environmental consequences of sourcing new raw materials, but with demand for rare-earth elements growing so rapidly, it's not clear whether recycling efforts can displace the need for more direct extraction.
Coal ash or not, O'Connor said stable domestic mineral supplies will require more than just recycling. She said Nth Cycle's technology can ensure domestic REEs mining is profitable and more environmentally friendly.
"We can't yet domestically provide all the critical minerals necessary for the clean energy transition through recycling alone," O'Connor said.
Extracting and processing rare-earths cleanly and efficiently at home, as opposed to in China, isn't just good for the environment and economy, O'Connor said, it would also be a boon to national security.
That's because rare-earth's aren't just vital to the production of wind turbines and iPads, they're also a key component in guided missiles and other weapons.
"I don't think America wants to have to depend on China for the critical minerals required to control our own future," O'Connor said.