Opportunities & limits to recycle critical metals for clean energies



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Opportunities & limits to recycle critical metals for clean energies

  • Trans-Atlantic Workshop on Rare Earth Elements and Other Critical Materials for a Clean Energy Future

  • MIT Boston, 3. Dec. 2010


Boom in demand for most ‘technology metals’



Clean energy developments will further boost demand for technology metals

  • Multiple examples:

  • Electric vehicles & batteries cobalt, lithium, rare earth elements, copper

  • Fuel cells platinum, (ruthenium, palladium, gold)

  • Photovoltaic (solar cells) silicon, silver, indium, gallium, selenium, tellurium, germanium, ruthenium

  • Thermo-electrics, opto-electronics, LEDs, … bismuth, tellurium, silicon, indium, gallium, arsenic, selenium, germanium, antimony, …



Urban mining “deposits” can be much richer than primary mining ores

  • Primary mining

    • ~5 g/t Au in ore
    • Similar for PGMs


Low loadings per unit, but volume counts Example: Metal use in electronics



Mass recycling vs technology metals recycling

  • “Mono-substance” materials without hazards

  • Trace elements remain part of alloys/glass

  • Recycling focus on mass and costs



Recycling chain - system approach is key

    • Consider the entire chain & its interdependences
    • Precious metals dominate economic & environmental value  minimise PM losses
    • Mass flows flows of technology metals
    • Success factors  interface optimisation, specialisation, economies of scale
  •  The total recycling efficiency is determined by the weakest step in the chain



Room for improvement in the recycling chain

  • Example of gold recycling



Large number of players in the recycling chain Limited number of technology metals refiners

  • Sufficient capacity for recovery of many technology metals available

  • Make sure that critical fractions reach these plants without major losses during the way

  • Ensure that critical fractions with technology metals are treated at BAT processes





Technology metals recycling is more complex than in the movies

  • Technical accessibility of relevant components

    • E.g. electronics in modern cars, REE-magnets in electric motors, …
    • Need for “Design for disassembly”, sorting & “pre-shredder” separation technologies
  • Thermodynamic challenges & difficult metal combinations for “trace elements”

    • Laws of Nature cannot be broken
    • E.g. rare earth elements, tantalum, gallium, beryllium in electronics, lithium in batteries
    • Need for recyclability consideration in development of new material combinations
  • Quality/composition of feed streams need to match with capability of recycling process



Economic recycling challenges

  • Most precious metals containing waste materials have a positive net value

    • Value of metals contained outweighs cost of recycling
  • Technology metals containing waste materials may have negative net value in the absence of certain “paying metals” (e.g. Au) in the same metal feed

    • Value/price of metal not sufficient to compensate for cost of recycling
    • Negative net value due to low critical metal concentrations in products
    • E.g. lithium in batteries, indium in LCDs & PV-modules
    • Create economic recycling incentives (subsidies) & improve technology (costs & efficiency)
  • Dispersed use inhibits economic recycling (regardless of price level)

    • E.g. silver in textiles or RFID chips
    • Avoid dispersed use or look for non-critical substitutes
  •  Legislative initiatives required in certain cases



Main flaws in EU WEEE recycling



To what extent does current (EU-) legislation help?

  • Legislation helps

    • Awareness raising, supportive legal framework
    • Development of take-back infrastructure, collection targets, EU wide reporting
    • Resource aspect of recycling is on the radar screen now, beyond the traditional waste/environmental aspects
  • Legislation can be improved

    • Weak enforcement of legislation
      • Poor monitoring of end-of-life flows
      • Illegal exports
    • Collection targets not ambitious enough, collection remains well below potential
      • Mass based targets do not help for technology metals (“trace elements”)
    • Neither clear definitions nor reliable supervision of recycling standards exist


Legislation needed for certain recycling drivers

  • Criticality, a new driver for recycling?



Next steps: Time for fundamental changes

  • Attitude: from waste management  to resource management

  • Targets: from focus on mass  to focus on quality & critical substances

  • Practice: from traditional waste business  to high-tech recycling

  • Vision (OEMs): from burden  to recycling as opportunity

  • Recycling requires a holistic and interdisciplinary approach

  • Ensure consistency between different policies





Recycling recommendations developed by the RMI critical metals group

  • Undertake policy actions to make recycling of critical raw materials more efficient, in particular by:

  • Mobilising relevant EoL products for proper collection instead of stocking, landfill or incineration

  • Improving overall organisation, logistics & efficiency of recycling chains by focussing on interfaces and system approach

  • Preventing illegal exports of relevant EoL products & increasing transparency in flows

  • Promoting research on system optimisation & recycling of technically challenging products & substances



RMI: Eurometaux Proposals



Choice of dismantling & pre-processing technology strongly impacts recovery rates

  • Choice of dismantling & pre-processing technology strongly impacts recovery rates

  • Materials must be steered into most suitable refining processes

    • Challenge for complex products
    • Precious- & special metals are lost unless directed into PM- & Cu-refining.
    • To maximise recovery of precious & special metals certain losses of plastics & base metals are inevitable (& should be tolerated).


Continuous technology innovation - Umicore recycling process for rechargeable batteries





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