Saturday, November 13, 2010

Urban Mining: Economically Viable Source of Rare Earth Metals?

Ever since Mainland China reduced its export quotas of rare earth minerals, will “urban mining” e-wastes soon become an economically viable source of rare earth metals?

By: Ringo Bones

The People’s Republic of China soon started reducing its export quota of rare earth minerals to the world market and none more so to Japan when a Mainland Chinese trawler captain was arrested by the Japanese navy for illegally fishing in waters both claimed by the two countries in the North China Sea back in September 7, 2010. As a country with a virtual monopoly on the commerce of rare earth metals – it produces over 90% of the worlds rare earth metals supply - Mainland China has since flex its geopolitical muscles by reducing the amount it sells to the global market and Japan. Given that all things that make our modern life possible – mobile phones, laptops, hybrid cars and even wind turbines use rare earth metals, will a shortage of this raw materials soon endanger our modern way of life?

As the country hardest hit by Beijing’s decision to reduce its rare earth export quota, Japan has pioneered a rather novel way of filling their manufacturing industry’s rare earth shortage. Dubbed “Urban Mining”, the scheme involves the reprocessing of e-wastes and obsolete consumer electronic gear to harvest the precious rare earth metals contained in them. Late 1990s era Sega Megadrives, electric typewriters, audiophile grade cassette tape decks, cathode ray tube type computer monitors and even hard disk drives of obsolete computers are recycled and processed for the extraction of the precious rare earth metals.

A Japanese company called Highbridge Computers now makes a profit harvesting rare earth metals from obsolete computer gear and other e-wastes that contain significant amounts of rare earth magnets. As amore long term solution, Kazuhiko Hono of Japan’s National Institute of Material Science have recently experimented with using lasers to dissect rare earth magnets atom-by-atom to analyze their magnetic structure and to explore the possibility of making rare earth magnets that use reduced quantities of precious rare earth metals.

Will urban mining – the recycling of e-wastes and obsolete consumer electronic equipment ever becomes a commercially viable source of rare earth metals? Shigeo Nakamura of Advanced Material Japan Corporation – one of the largest processor of rare earth ores from Mainland China for use in the manufacture of high tech goods – says that Japan’s stockpiles of rare earths are fast dwindling. If Mainland China continues to use its rare earth metal monopoly as a tool for geopolitical hegemony, it will only be a matter of time that recycling e-wastes and obsolete electronic equipment could soon become not only a commercially viable source of rare earth metals due to lesser chemical processes and energy involved in harvesting it from such source, but also a more environmentally-friendly source of rare earth metals as well. At least it is an economically viable way to recycle obsolete electronic and computer gear.

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