Friday, October 26, 2012

German Rare Earth Metals Recycling Program: Now Economically Viable?

Though still developed by an “East-German born” chemist, will Germany’s rare earth metals recycling program eventually reach economic viability?

By: Ringo Bones

Thanks to The People’s Republic of China’s “stranglehold” on the global commercial rare earth metals supply, some in the affluent industrialized West are already contemplating novel ways to develop an alternative method of acquiring their quotas of rare earth metals. Had anyone already checked their used and busted compact fluorescent bulb pile for rare earth metals?

German chemist Wolfram Palitzsch has during the past few years been developing an economically viable method to extract rare earth metals from used and/or busted compact fluorescent bulbs that as for now been just thrown away. Somewhat appalled by the sight of garbage-bags full of phosphors being thrown by German factories, Palitzsch was compelled to find a way to recover the increasingly precious rare earth metals from just winding up in a communal landfill.

At present and using his own proprietary methods, Palitzsch successfully developed a chemical extraction method for europium – a rare earth metal commonly used as component for red phosphors in color TV sets – from the white powder phosphors from used compact fluorescent bulbs. Even though his method worked, it can’t still be yet classified as an economically viable method to extract rare earth metals from busted compact fluorescent bulbs – compared to mining rare earths directly from the Earth’s crust - because different brands and models of compact fluorescent bulbs require somewhat different chemical extraction methods to recycle the rare earth metals – making a cost-competitive one-size-fits-all chemical process the next step for him to develop.

But after the environmental protests of low-level radioactive residues in some rare earth metal mines and processing mines not located in Mainland China – like the Australian owned Lynas rare earth metal mine and processing plant in Kuantan, Malaysia – recycling rare earth metals from “urban wastes” like phosphors from used compact fluorescent bulbs might only be the best long-term solution for the current rare earth metals shortage. Primarily it is a contentious political issue, but most people think that recycling rare earth metals from their own industrial and urban wastes – instead of buying it from a relatively despotic nation-state like The People’s Republic of China – might give the rest of us a cleaner conscience when it comes to corporate social responsibility.

When he was growing up in then communist East Germany, chemist Wolfram Palitzsch got first-hand lessons on recycling and resource conservation from his father because at that time, anything in the supposed resource Utopia of the then socialist East Germany might suddenly be in short supply. Palitzsch watched his father recycle bottle tops for latter use in handy do-it-yourself repairs and the rest to be sold in the local scrap-yard for a bit of extra cash and to barter for other goods. Palitzsch’s method of chemically extracting rare earth metals, as in europium extraction, from busted fluorescent bulbs is an offshoot from a chemical process he previously developed in extracting indium – an increasingly expensive and rare metal – from used solar photovoltaic cells. Ironically, he named the firm that he founded for extracting valuable elements from industrial and urban wastes “Loser Chemie” even though someday it might be a winner when it comes to extracting rare and precious elements from urban and industrial wastes.   

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Rare Earth Metals Industry Versus Mother Nature

Is it really worth compromising established environmental laws in the name of easier rare earth metal access for the whole world?

By: Ringo Bones

Thanks to The People’s Republic of China’s strategic stranglehold of the global rare earth metals supply, countries denied easy access to rare earths could resort to disregarding established legal precedents protecting the environment. A case in point is the latest courtroom battle between the Australian owned Lynas Rare Earth Plant and the local political constituency and environmentalist of Kuantan, Malaysia.  As the local court is on an ongoing negotiation to whether allow Lynas a permanent application to run the plant, environmental concerns cast a long shadow over the proceedings given that a similar rare earth metals processing plant located near the place was closed down 18 years ago for failure to comply with preexisting environmental laws. 

Given that The People’s republic of China controls about 97% of the global rare earth metals mining and processing, any country with a beef with the Beijing government – either on the issue of Tibet, human rights or unfair international trade practices – has no other choice but to put ethics in second place over access to the coveted rare earth metals commodities. But will restarting rare earth metals mining and processing facilities elsewhere in the world even though they don’t quite pass muster the rather stringent local environmental laws be a better option?

Even though Malaysia’s Lynas Rare Earth Plant is the biggest rare earth metals processing and refining facility outside of Mainland China, its operation has been more or less on hold since May 2012 due to environmental concerns voiced by local environmental activists and the local inhabitants of Kuantan - by the way, Kuantan is the capital of Pahang, Malaysia's third largest state. Both locals and environmentalists are currently picketing the plant due to concerns over lack of oversight when it comes to the safe disposal of the low-level radioactive wastes which are a by-product of rare earth metal purification and processing. The thorium and radon gas content of the overburden in a typical rare earth metals processing plant has a radioactivity level sufficient enough to increase the likelihood of cancer on any persons exposed to it for a prolonged period of time. Will more stringent disposal of low-level radioactive wastes still make the rare earth metals produced by the Malaysian Lynas plant be still cost-competitive compared to ones made by Mainland China?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Thulium: The X-Ray Visioned Rare Earth?

Given that it is the rarest of the rare earth metals, is thulium more famous for its portable X-ray related use than any of its rather relatively “obscure” applications? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though in terms of its abundance in the Earth’s crust, thulium does truly qualify as the rarest of the rare earth metals, although in truth, it is only slightly scarcer than the halogen iodine. As a reminder to the uninitiated, the term “rare earth” is actually a misnomer – the widespread use of the term arose near the end of the 19th Century when the chemists who first discovered these rare earth elements used to prepare the elements’ oxides, which were, at first, taken from the elements themselves. Thulium was discovered as a distinct chemical element back in 1879 by Per Theodore Cleve. Atomic number 69 and chemical symbol Tm, its name is derived from Thule or Northland. For the first half of the 20th Century, thulium was only known as mere “impurity” in your run-of-the-mill misch metal alloys destined for pocket cigarette-lighter flint production. 

Thulium became more well-known to the unsuspecting public when in 1954, a portable X-ray unit was developed which employs radioactive thulium as its source of radiation – produced by irradiating a pure sample of the metal inside a nuclear reactor. Like those small nuclear reactors often found in some Ivy League university physics labs that costs 200 US dollars an hour to run. A small amount – usually button-sized specimen - of this thulium radioisotope that gives off X-rays is encased in a lead-lined compartment which affords full protection to personnel involved in its operation, produces X-ray radiographs without the use of electricity, water or darkroom facilities. The unit, which weighs only 40 pounds, is simple to operate and produces a finished radiograph ready for inspection in five to ten minutes. The “hot” thulium radioisotope used in portable X-ray machines is replaced every few months or so since it spontaneously decays into a more stable element that no longer gives off X-rays.