Rare Earth Reuse


In 2014, C&E News carried a report that the World Trade Organization (WTO) had rendered a verdict that the Chinese should be forced to sell their rare earth products to other countries. The Chinese have the most productive rare earth mines in the world. The West has a few but they have been either closed or run out. Rare earths are widely used in industry, often in electro-optical instruments. Neodymium is used in all the best magnets, which means in speakers. Lots of them are used in smartphones or computers. Yet with all of this usage, there is naturally no program to reuse any of the rare earths. All that Western industrialists and their politicians can think of is how to get ever more of them to use once and then discard into dumps. Therefore, their first thought is to find more to mine. And since China had most of the world’s supply, which it was holding on to, to supply their own industries, the West sought to force the Chinese to sell their precious rare earths on the world market. And now, that program has been successful. In any sane world, rare earths would be monitored for reuse in a host of different ways. But the core philosophy of waste at any cost cannot be gainsayed. China is anxious enough to remain within the trade agreements that it is willing to go along with the WTO’s ruling, to the further erosion of the planet’s resources. A sad day indeed. C&E News, Aug 18, 2014, p. 21.

Things get so crazy that Youtube sports a video showing how to destroy an entire microwave appliance (presumably one that doesn’t work anymore) in order to remove the circular rare earth magnets from the magnetron housing. All the wires are removed or clipped, parts are removed and discarded, cowlings and sheet metal are bent away and removed and finally the magnet is removed. The last scene shows the technician with a handful of a dozen magnets all of identical shapes. So presumably, old magnets could have been used in identical configurations in new machines if only the machines had been made to allow the magnets to be easily removed, instead of needing the destructive method used in this video. See Magnet retrieval – microwave destruction .  Brrrr! What insanity!


In 2017 C&E News reports on a supposed “advance” which allows magnets to be destroyed, presumably by dissolving them in acid, and then the rare earths can partially be separated to be precipitated, resmelted and reformed into new magnets, at great expense of chemical reworking. Read the article As we have pointed out over and over again in this website, the important quality that needs to be saved, for maximum environmental benefit, is the function, not the materials. In this case, the magnets need to be reused as magnets, not dissolved in acid. The way this would be done would be to identify a reasonably small number of interchangeable magnet designs. Then procedures would be put into place to extract for reuse, all magnets after their intended use is complete.  The number of permitted designs need not be so small as to interfere with design. Perhaps a few hundred. Then manufacturers would take pains to make use of some used magnet design that could meet their needs. New designs could be added by application for a permit. Would this add a layer of red tape? Unfortunately yes. Is saving our one planet worth it? You can answer that.


In 2018, C&E News reports (July 9, p. 29) that a brand new source of rare earths has been discovered. Conveniently, it is coal ash, the waste product from burning coal. Wasters love it when discards can be mined for something valuable so that dumping and discard can be justified. For comparison,  standard dumps were delighted to learn that small amounts of methane emanate from discarded garbage so that they can put in burners and pretend they are “energy providers”. Now we have an attempt to value coal ash for its content of rare earths, a product that there is no domestic source of in the US.

It is pointed out that with the trade wars, being created by President Trump, the Chinese could simply refuse to supply more rare earths, thus cutting off the US from its only good source of these materials. The article points out that Chinese ores range up to 5000 ppm of rare earths while the coal ash runs in the mere hundreds of ppm. Extraction is a complex chemical process involving the usual dissolving in acid, widely used in mining, and then concentrating from there.  The more dilute the source, the more chemical manipulations are required. The normal pollutive effect of mining extraction is the distribution of acid residues into the environment, perhaps after neutralization with a base.  Since coal ash is accumulated in mountainous piles at many places near power plants, the chemical equipment is being placed on rail cars or trucks and moved to where the coal ash is found. Mobile equipment tends not to take  many antipollution or effluent treatment precautions.

Surplus and “waste” rock from coal mining is also being looked at for rare earth extraction. Unlike coal ash, which is a powder, rock must first be ground up into a powder before it can be bathed in acid. All of this creates the expected dust, waste mineral disposal and acid mining tailings. The sordid history of these polluting products involves the destruction of rivers, the despoliation of land and the wanton destruction of  other use values for surrounding properties. However, all of this is considered to be preferable to commonsense precautions that could otherwise be taken to recover rare earth components from the commodities in which they are used. For some reason, oblivious to any right thinking observer, the recovery of high function components is prohibited by custom, by investment and sometimes by law.  That prohibition is so draconian that the threat of war with China is preferable to recapture of once-used products. If you can understand this insanity, please explain it to me.


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