Ames Lab scientists research recycling of rare earth elements

Amelia Johnson

From the smartphone to the Hybrid car in someone’s garage, rare earth metals lurk everywhere. But as China, the world’s biggest producer, tightens its grip on its exportation of these rare earth metals, attention is being turned to finding new mines and ways of recycling these metals.

Unless they have been purified, rare earth metals are actually called rare earth elements. They are actually not rare, however. They are found throughout the earth’s crust in trace amounts, making them expensive and difficult to mine. There are seventeen of these “rare” earth metals with the lanthanide series as the core, plus scandium and yttrium. These seventeen are used in many things that people use daily.

Rare earth metals are found in many everyday products including televisions, computer displays and hard drives, Ipods, hybrid cars, as well as the giant magnets in wind turbines. They are also found in the medical field such as in lasers used on eyes, and dental lasers. These rare earth metals are very efficient, and can be made into very small objects, also helping to shrink some technology.

A research group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory is researching how to recycle these metals. The Materials Preparation Center also works with purifying rare earth metals, and, in fact, has one of the highest purity ratings in Iowa. Scientists are working to research how to recycle these metals before they are gone forever.

The Ames Laboratory Materials Preparation Center purifies metal for research purposes. Once the metals have had their impurities removed, they are sent out to other research centers to be tested for various purposes, such as their magnetic properties and other unique properties. In fact, some of the metal that the Materials Preparation Center has purified is in the Planck Satellite.

“There are no alternatives, only inferior substitutes,” said William McCallum, a senior scientist in the department of Materials and Engineering Physics at Iowa State, when referring to the importance of recycling of rare earth metals.

Much of America’s technology is imported from the Asian continent, and those countries get their majority of rare earth metal from China.

China produces more than 95 percent of the rare earth metal that is incorporated into various things. Due to China’s population increase and their increased usage of objects using rare earth metals, China is beginning to tighten its grip on how much of the rare earth metals are being exported. This has caused an increased awareness in the American society. This has led America to begin finding and opening new mines such as the reopening of the Mountain Pass Mine in California.

“The rare earths are essential to the life of modern teenagers as they know it,” McCallum said.