Closed Loop Recycling for Rare Earth Metals

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As resources become scarcer, or at least perceived as becoming scarcer, when prices become more volatile and western consumers become more concerned about the environment, the case for recycling metals finds supporters from many corners. Where once it was purely an economic question for third party scrap recycling companies can we make money out of taking product at end of life and extracting useful metals?  Now, original equipment manufacturers, worried about material supply risks, are embracing what’s termed closed loop recycling as a way to maintain control and use of the precious or scarce metals they use in making their products. Chemical and pharmaceutical companies have long seen the benefits of recycling precious metal catalysts used in their manufacturing processes but they are the low hanging fruit of the recycling business. Challenged only by developing efficient technology to extract the PGM and re-use it, they already benefit from retaining direct ownership of the PGM it never leaves their control and from dealing with a metal resource that is sufficiently valuable to easily justify the cost and effort of segregation and refining.

As we have moved into an age where everyone has multiple electronic devices and as those devices have become more and more of a commodity replaced in cycles of 18 months to 2 years, we have built up a massive and largely untapped urban mine of metals trapped inside millions of phones, laptops, games consoles, etc. The recent shock announcement that China was to restrict exports of many rare or specialist metals used in critical applications, although hastily withdrawn, has only focused the industries attention on the precarious state of the supply market for many of these metals.

The challenge in achieving high levels of recycling, better than 50%, is in maintaining ownership and hence control of the metallic product. Even for high value metals, when the OEM loses control of the product, reclamation rates fall drastically. In a study conducted earlier this decade in Germany (a sophisticated recycling market) only 12 % of auto catalysts demand was met form recycled PGM’s compared to 85% of gross demand for PGM’s in the glass and industrial catalyst markets why? Because the OEM’s the car makers or their T1 exhaust manufacturers lost control of the exhaust system at end of life. In the base year, 320,000 ounces of PGM’s escaped recycling and were considered “lost.” 50% of this was platinum with palladium comprising 40% and rhodium 10%. At today’s prices, that is nearly US$ 300 million of precious metals lost every year largely for want of effective CLR programs. Globally, Umicore, the world’s largest PGM recycling company, estimated in a presentation that 1000 tons of PGM’s are lost per year and that even by 2006 the recycling rate had still not reached 20%.

It is encouraging then to see the introduction of new technologies being shadowed by comprehensive closed loop recycling programs by major manufacturers. Toyota and Honda have both developed effective return and refining programs alongside the introduction of their NiMH battery powered hybrid vehicles. Even though the battery life guarantee means volumes will not pick up until well into the next decade, Toyota has every NiMH battery tagged and a $200 bounty on its head for return and end of life. Is this because Toyota is an environmentally responsible company who wants to ensure potentially harmful metals are not released into the environment? Toyota certainly is an environmentally responsible company but no this is all about maintaining use of precious and scarce metals for a manufacturer based in a country with no natural metallic resources of their own. Toyota rightfully sees holding onto those metals as an important element in maintaining volume production in the years ahead as availability becomes progressively more scarce.

–Stuart Burns

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