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Rare Earth Metals: Why Are They Important & How Can We Recycle Them?

Life as we know it would be impossible without Rare Earth metals. These metals – also called Rare Earth Elements – are used in many modern technologies, especially in the consumer electronics, transportation, medical, and defense industries.

What Are Rare Earth Elements?

Credit: Geology.com

Credit: Geology.com

The “rare earths” are a series of seventeen chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust. They include the fifteen lanthanides, scandium, and yttrium.

Despite the name, rare Earth Elements are relatively common. What makes them “rare” is that they are usually found in tiny amounts, making it difficult to mine for them. The mining process is expensive, labor intensive, and environmentally hazardous.


The Importance of Rare Earth Elements

We depend on Rare Earth Metals / elements to help us maintain our current high standard of living.

Here are a few of the many items we rely on that contain rare earth metals:

  • Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Camera lenses
  • Lasers
  • Cancer treatments
  • Headphones
  • Computer hard drives
  • Cell phones
  • Pacemakers
  • Color televisions
  • Car batteries
  • X-ray machines
  • MRI machines
  • Wind turbines
  • Computer monitors


The Problem with Mining for Rare Earths

Credit: Geology.com

Credit: Geology.com

Since mining for rare earth metals is difficult and expensive, not too many countries are doing it. As recently as 2010, over 95% of the world’s supply of rare earths came from China. This is dangerous because supply and demand determines the price for these elements. When China started limiting exports in early 2011, prices increased significantly.

Other countries are able to step up and increase production, but that takes time. Opening up a mine for rare earths can take several years or longer. We also need to consider that by relying on mines, we risk our supply eventually running out. So what do we do?


Recycling Rare Earth Elements

Credit: Geology.com

Credit: Geology.com

Recycling rare earth elements is the obvious solution, but it’s not a simple one. You might think that it would be easier to recover rare earths from electronics than to mine them from the ground, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s a complicated process that is still being perfected. One reason for this is that modern electronic devices contain so many different elements that it’s difficult to separate one without damaging the rest.

Although the challenges associated with recycling rare earths are significant, the bigger problem is collecting electronics for recycling. Electronics recycling is important not only because it gives us the opportunity to recover rare earths, but also because it allows us to extend the lives of devices through remanufacturing, refurbishing, and resale. Unfortunately, electronics recycling laws are still not widespread and many of these devices end up in landfills.

Until we find a better way to recover rare earth elements, lessening the demand for new materials through electronics recycling and refurbishing is the best solution. Given the importance of rare earths to modern living, we need to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to make sure that our supply continues to be enough to keep up with the demand.

Resources / More Information

  • Geology.com
  • Ensia.com
  • Environment 360 at Yale.edu
  • BBC.com
  • GreenBiz.com
  • The post Rare Earth Metals: Why Are They Important & How Can We Recycle Them? appeared first on Cal State Electronic Recycling | Computer Recycling.



This post first appeared on Cal State Electronic Recycling | Computer Recycling -, please read the originial post: here

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