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Searching for rare earth minerals in ‘urban mines’

Christopher Werth Nov 2, 2010

Searching for rare earth minerals in ‘urban mines’

Christopher Werth Nov 2, 2010


KAI RYSSDAL: High technology is everywhere. You can’t turn around without seeing a cell phone or an mp3 player or, increasingly, hybrid electric cars. And somewhere inside each of those things are minerals known as rare earth metals. They’re not really all that rare, technically, but 97 percent of the world’s supply of them comes from China.

So earlier this week when Chinese officials said that they have no plans to limit exports, it could reasonably have been cause for at least mild celebration. But Beijing’s already cut its rare earth shipments almost in half from last year’s levels. So supply concerns are pushing people to look for alternative sources.

Pushing them to look almost anywhere, as Christopher Werth reports from London.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH: If your house is anything like mine, you probably have a drawer full of old cell phones that you’ve outgrown over the years. My girlfriend spent some time counting up ours.

GIRLFRIEND: We have two Nokia, one BlackBerry, one Sony Ericsson. And then, this is my first phone, which I like.

She’s since moved on to an iPhone and thrown her old phone into the ever-growing drawer of useless devices. Or, not so useless, if you ask experts like Stuart Burns of the website Metal Miner.

STUART BURNS: Trapped inside that phone are minute quantities of rare earths. And if those could be recycled then they would provide a valuable source of metal for the future.

It turns out my drawer of old phones is just a tiny part of what’s called the “urban mine” made up of all our outdated gadgets. And it has the potential to be big.

BURNS: There was something in excess of 500 million mobile phones being sold around the world, and when you look at how much each one weighs, that’s equivalent to about 50,000 tons of mobile phones.

Add those phones together with everyone’s discarded laptops, desktops and other electronic items, and there are enough rare earth metals inside to replace a lot of what, today, comes almost entirely from China. Those rare earths are essential for the growing green energy and technology industries all over the world. In Europe, which doesn’t have the same kind of reserves in the ground as say the U.S. or Australia, that so-called “urban mine” is seen as particularly valuable. But first, all that valuable material has to make it into the right hands.

JUSTIN GREENAWAY: Are you unloading here?

At this recycling plant, manager Justin Greenaway and I watch truckloads of old electronic goods being dumped into large piles.

GREENAWAY: Potential is what you’re looking at here. Inside this sea of electronics is a variety of raw materials.

Thanks to recent European-wide regulations that make manufacturers pay part of the cost of recycling, Europe is getting better at making sure those raw materials end up here, instead of in landfills. But Greenaway admits that most electronic items are still being tossed into general waste landfills.

GREENAWAY: So arguably, we’ll be mining our landfills at some point to try and take back out the raw materials that we’ve stupidly let go.

Companies that use rare earths are looking for better ways to get that material back once their customers no longer need it.

TOYOTA COMMERCIAL: The gas electric Prius with hybrid synergy drive is here.

Toyota, for instance, puts a phone number on the battery in its Prius cars so that owners and recyclers have the option of returning it to them, and Toyota can reuse the several pounds of rare earth metals it contains. But metals expert Stuart Burns says even when these valuable materials are recovered, there’s another problem.

BURNS: The technologies for recycling rare earths are still in their infancy.

So turning my drawer full of old cell phones into a valuable rare earth source won’t be easy. But Burns says that if China continues to restrict rare earth exports, costs will keep rising. Then the financial incentive to tap that valuable urban mine may give those recycling technologies the kind of boost they need.

In London, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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