Rare earths from the past… mobile phones

By | May 1, 2023

In recent years we have heard more and more about rare earths with strange names: scandium (Sc), yttrium (Y), lanthanum (La), demetria (Ce), neodymium (Nd), europium (Eu), terbium ( Tb), Holmium (Ho), Erbium (Er), Thulium (Tm) and others. These are a total of 17 types of rare metals that, due to their characteristics, are essential for current and future technologies and for “green transition”. To meet the climate goals set for 2045, there is no alternative to rare earths. Up to three kilograms of these rare metals are found in an electric car. Neither photovoltaic systems nor microchips would work without rare earths. Wind turbines wouldn’t work without lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, silicon, and many other rare metals. Up to 300 kg is required to operate an offshore wind turbine.

But 60% of the world’s production of rare earths comes from China, with 44 million tons. They are followed by Vietnam (22 million tons) and Brazil (22 million tons).

“Black Swan”

The escalation of tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan or an embargo on rare earths would have serious consequences for the European and world economy. A “black swan” that should not be ignored, for the investor.

The Chinese government is once again raising the specter of an embargo on rare earths, adding fuel to the fire. As Eric Galiek, president of Valquant Expertise, says, “Taiwan will be the next episode of geopolitical tension, and the confrontation between China and the United States on the semiconductor front is inevitable.”

Of course, the stakes are high economically, both for the Western world, for which China remains “the world’s factory,” and for China itself, which is facing rapidly declining growth and demographic challenges.

This fact makes Europe increasingly dependent. Earlier this year, there was applause for the discovery of a rare earth deposit in Sweden with a capacity of more than one million tons. Although it is the largest deposit of its kind in Europe to date, it is unlikely to be enough to cover the energy transition and independence of Europe. “Rare earths are particularly important for the energy transition,” says Martin Erdmann, a raw materials expert at the Hannover Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources. “Due to the environmental issues in rare earth mining, it has not been attractive for other countries to get involved in production. And people were heavily dependent on raw materials that came from China. With the current geopolitical political tensions, he saw that such dependencies can be very critical,” adds Erdman.

Recycling of wind turbines and smartphones

Many research programs are currently addressing how to obtain these precious metals, which will soon become the new “fuel” of the green-tech revolution. Although rare earths are difficult to recycle, there are still some steps that need to be taken. . in this field,” says Erdmann. “There are currently many research programs dealing with how rare earths can be recovered. However, this requires higher yields. These will not be completed for at least 10 years, when the first generation of the largest wind turbines will be returned for recycling.” With the growing need for a clean energy transition, recycling will also become increasingly important. But there is a huge reserve of rare earths, of which many have not thought: for example, we can find rare earths in smartphones, touch screens, computer hard drives, but also in optical fibers and lasers and in many medical devices, even batteries. for electric cars, but above all, in the useless, old mobile phones. In them are the metals -and still are- necessary for the electronics industry in the production of new smartphones. The recycling of old mobiles could be a valid alternative to obtain the famous rare earths. A device can contain more than 60 different metals, including gold.

tons of cell phones

Of course, it takes countless tons of old smartphones to mine large amounts of rare earths. According to a study by the “E-waste Lab de Remedia”, in collaboration with the Milan Polytechnic, the average composition of a mobile phone is: 9 grams of copper, 11 grams of iron, 250 milligrams of silver, 24 milligrams of gold, 9 milligrams of palladium, 65 grams of plastic and one gram of rare earths. The cell’s lithium battery contains 3.5 grams of cobalt and one gram of rare earths.

Therefore, we can recover 2.7 kg of valuable and recyclable materials for every ton of smartphones. Recovering these valuable materials and rare metals from old mobile phones is the goal of the ‘Portent’ project, coordinated by the Italian Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (Enea). A sustainable project if one takes into account that only in 2020 the waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment in Italy exceeded 78 thousand tons.

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