Rare-earth metal recycling needed to power green tech

Recycling of specialty metals used in hybrid batteries, LED lights, and solar panels will help ensure future supply and save energy, a U.N. report says.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read

Metal recycling is the sleeper growth industry in green tech.

Specialty metals, such as lithium and indium, and rare-earth elements, such as neodymium, are required for production of many green-technology products, including batteries for hybrid cars, LED lights, fuel cells, and solar panels.

But to ensure future supply of these resources, recycling rates needed to increase substantially, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program. Preliminary findings were issued Thursday, with a full report planned for later this year.

More recycling is needed to ensure supply of metals for common products, such as electronics and car batteries. U.N. Environment Program

The recycling rates for specialty metals are only about 1 percent, according to a U.N. panel on metals that is chaired by experts from India, Germany, and Yale University.

"Boosting end-of-life recycling rates not only offers a path to enhancing those supplies and keeping metal prices down, but can also generate new kinds of employment while ensuring the longevity of the mines and the stocks found in nature," Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said in a statement.

There are substantial environmental benefits to recycling all metals, which is between two and ten times more energy efficient than smelting metals from ores, according to the report.

The report says recycling rates of more common metals, such as copper, aluminum, lead, and tin, vary greatly. They can range from 25 percent to 75 percent and are much lower in some developing countries.

Increasingly, both specialty and common metals may be "mined" from existing products and structures, such as electronic gadgets and buildings. For every person in the U.S., there is now about 530 pounds of copper that is above ground, according to the report.

Although there are environmental reasons to recycle, there's been a spike in interest over the supply of specialty metals in the past year for financial reasons.

In March, for example, scientists warned a congressional committee that growth of green-technology industries will be choked by constraints over rare-earth elements from China, which has growing demand and has put limits on exports. One of the biggest sources for lithium used in batteries for many upcoming electric vehicles is in South America.

Meanwhile, other lesser-known elements used in technology products are seeing a sharp rise in demand. For example, 80 percent of all indium, an element used in production of semiconductors, LED lights, medical imaging, and some solar cell materials, has been extracted over the past 30 years, according to the U.N. report.