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.