“Raw materials of the future” series
Suppose a continent wants to switch to electromobility, wants to become climate neutral – but no one is providing the raw materials. For some important raw materials, industry in Europe is almost entirely dependent on politically unstable countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or China, where about 90% of so-called rare earths come from. Metals with enigmatic names such as praesodymium or dysprosium, without which nothing works in smartphones, electric car batteries, computers and much more in the modern world.
So what to do Jens Gutzmer is investigating this issue. He is director of the Helmholtz Center Freiberg for Resource Technology and an expert in rare raw materials. “The fields of application for rare earths are extremely diverse,” says Gutzmer, the industry argues that some components cannot be produced as small as desired if these high-tech metals are used.
Since China restricted the supply of rare earth metals after an incident in the South China Sea and their prices quintupled, the industry has, however, thought to use the valuable and expensive raw materials at least more sparingly. . For example, experts say that Gutzmer succeeded in reducing the proportion of dysprosium in magnets. Dysprosium is considered particularly rare.
Volkswagen made a deliberate decision against neodymium for its ID 3 electric car and opted for the much more common ferrite material for the magnets – but this had to be factored into the design from the start. “There have been efforts in this direction,” says Gutzmer. Japanese companies in particular have succeeded in reducing the proportion of rare earth metals.
Open detailed view
Rare earths in glass, left to right: Cerine, Bastnasite, Neodymium and Lanthanum Carbonate which VW replaced in ID 3.
(Photo: David Becker / REUTERS)
Changes in the makeup of magnets and other components are one thing. However, it is at least as important to recycle raw materials from devices that have reached the end of their useful life. Throwing them away is the dumbest thing you can do anyway. After all, their extraction is generally anything but environmentally friendly, and many children also work in the unofficial cobalt mines in the Congo.
There is a rule of thumb that applies to recycling: the purer the raw material from which the raw materials are to be recovered, the better it works. This is why, for example, the grinding dust that is formed during the processing of rare earth metals can be successfully recycled. “But when it comes to very complex mixtures of laptops and cars, for example, it becomes difficult to extract raw materials by type,” says Gutzmer.
Recovery works in the lab – but no investor was found
After all, materials and recycling company Umicor says it can generate side streams when metals are melted from old devices. This means that not only metals such as gold, copper or platinum would then be mined, which has been happening for a long time. Tin or indium could then also be recycled. “Companies only need enough volume”, explains Gutzmer, ie enough material to be able to melt. Rare earths, which are present in very small amounts, fall through the rust in the relatively coarse process.
At the Helmholtz Center, Gutzmer and his team have developed methods to recover these raw materials, but only on a laboratory scale. “Unfortunately, they have not prevailed in the market,” says Gutzmer, “there has been no support from investors”. But it would have been necessary to build a large-scale facility. Only then would it have been possible to judge whether recycling is financially worthwhile or at least not more expensive than buying it.
Gutzmer’s hope is directed towards the so-called material passport, on which the European Union is working. This should force companies to communicate what is on their devices. Automated systems could be developed to, for example, automatically disassemble smartphones and dispose of raw materials as precisely as possible. “We need to recognize what is on the conveyor belt faster,” he says. Automatic image recognition can be of great help. But he also knows that it is still far: “We are talking about things that can happen in ten to fifteen years,” he said.
What worries him, however: In matters of sovereignty, nothing has changed for ten years: “There have been discussion groups, a lot of papers have been printed, but not a single mine has been built. Europe remains dependent on foreign raw materials.