In recent years we have heard more and more often about rare earths with strange names: Scandium (Sc), Yttrium (Y), Lanthanum (La), Demetry (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 which, due to their characteristics, are essential for today’s and tomorrow’s technologies and for “green transition”. To achieve the climate objectives set for 2045, there is no alternative to rare earths. Up to three kilograms of these rare metals are in an electric car. Neither photovoltaic systems nor microchips would work without rare earths. Wind turbines wouldn’t spin without lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, silicon and many other rare metals. Up to 300 kg are needed to operate an offshore wind turbine.
But 60% of the world production of rare earths comes from China, with 44 million tons. It is followed by Vietnam (22 million tons) and Brazil (22 million tons).
An 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 global economy. A “black swan” not to be overlooked for the investor.
The Chinese government is once again raising the specter of a rare earth embargo, adding fuel to the fire. As Eric Galiek, president of Valquant Expertise puts it, “Taiwan will be the next episode of geopolitical tension, and the confrontation between China and the United States on the semiconductor front – is inevitable.”
The economic stakes are of course high, both for the Western world – for whom China remains “the factory of the world” – and for China itself, which is facing a rapid decline in its growth and demographic challenges. .
This fact makes Europe more and more dependent. Earlier this year, we were delighted with the discovery of a rare earth deposit in Sweden with a capacity of more than one million tonnes. Although this is the largest such deposit in Europe to date, it is unlikely to be sufficient to cover Europe’s energy transition and independence. “Rare earths are particularly important for the energy transition,” says Martin Erdmann, raw materials expert at the Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hannover. “Due to the environmental issues associated with the exploitation of rare earths, it has not been attractive for other countries to get involved in production. And people relied heavily on raw materials from China. With the current geopolitical political tensions, you have seen that such dependencies can be very critical,” Erdman adds.
Recycle wind turbines and smartphones
Many research programs are currently dealing with obtaining these precious metals which will soon become the new “fuel” of the techno-green revolution. Although rare earths are difficult to recycle, there are still a few steps to take. in this area,” says Erdmann. “Many research programs are currently dealing with how rare earths can be recovered. However, this requires higher yields. These won’t be finished for at least 10 years, when the first generation of the largest wind turbines will be sent back for recycling.” With the growing need for a transition to clean energy, recycling will also become increasingly important. But there is a huge reservoir of rare earths, which many have not thought of: Rare earths can be found, for example, in smartphones, touch screens, computer hard drives, but also in fiber optics and lasers and in many medical devices, even batteries for electric cars But above all, in 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 be able to obtain the famous rare earths. A device can contain more than 60 different metals, including gold.
Tons of cell phones
Of course, countless tons of old smartphones are needed to extract large amounts of rare earths. According to a study by “Remedia’s E-waste Lab”, in collaboration with the Polytechnic of Milan, 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 phone’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 each ton of smartphones. Recovering these precious 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 we consider that in 2020 alone, waste electrical and electronic equipment in Italy exceeded 78,000 tons.