Japan boosts recycling to ease Chinese rare earth squeeze  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The SMH has an article on an increased interest in recycling (and eventually, in "design for disassembly") as a result of restricted availability of rare earths for manufacturing - Japan boosts recycling to ease China squeeze.

It takes two Hitachi workers eight minutes to slice open the metal casing of the used air conditioner compressor. The prize inside: four wafer-thin magnets containing about 30 grams of rare earth metals.

Hitachi, Japan's third-biggest company, uses as much as 600 tons of rare earth metals each year in products such as motors for Toyota's Prius hybrid. Hitachi is one of hundreds of manufacturers depending on rare earth shipments from China, which controls 97 per cent of world supply of the lightweight, malleable metals essential to hybrid cars, cell phones and hard disk drives.

China's decision this year to slash exports of the metals has driven up prices and spurred a drive among Japanese companies, the world's biggest users of rare earths, to find other supplies. While trading houses Sojitz and Sumitomo consider investing in mines outside China, Hitachi said it expects recycling to meet 10 per cent of its needs by 2013 from almost zero now.

“We need to make sure we have a stable supply of these materials and recycling is part of that,” Kenji Baba, general manager of Hitachi's resource recycling office, said this week at a test site north of Tokyo. “Now we have to work on bringing costs down.”

Inside the site in a warehouse in Matsudo City, Hitachi demonstrated the results of the one-year, $US1.5 million ($1.5 million) research project partly funded by Japan's government. Four refrigerator-sized devices use saws to open up compressors without damaging the rare earth magnets inside. A separate conveyor belt feeds disk drives into a machine about the size of a ship container. The drives come out the other end in pieces ready for rare earth harvesting. Hitachi says the machines are the first of their kind.

Rising prices

Last year, China's government clamped down on its rare earth industry, setting production quotas to bolster prices. China said in July this year it would reduce export quotas 72 per cent in the second half to supply its own electronics industry and overhaul a mining sector blamed for causing widespread environmental damage.

The drop in output and exports combined with rising demand caused the price of neodymium used in batteries for Toyota's Prius to surge fourfold to $US80 a kilogram from $US19.12 in 2009, according to Sydney-based rare-earth miner Lynas Corp. Lynas is building a $550 million rare earths mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia.

Sojitz, one of Japan's biggest importers of rare earths, last month agreed with Lynas to buy 8,000 tons to 9,000 tons annually from its Mount Weld mine over the next 10 years. ...

Copper processor Mitsubishi Materials Corp., which has recycling ventures with Panasonic and Sharp, last year started researching the cost of extracting neodymium and dysposium from washing machines and air conditioners.

“We're trying to reduce costs by automating the process,” said Isato Matsubara, a spokesman at the company. “How profitable the business can be depends on the prices of materials and getting our costs down.” ...

For recyclers, extracting components is the first step. Magnets from air conditioning compressors are 25 per cent rare earth metal and a chemical process is needed to refine out the rare earths, Hitachi's Baba said.

“We've succeeded in processing the metals in small quantities without using acids,” Baba said. “Now we're working on methods to increase the scale.”

Even China's supply is not unlimited, some of the heavy rare earths it has will only last about 15 years, Ali Izadi- Najafabadi, a Tokyo-based analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said.

“So if we're going to have a clean energy revolution and electric vehicles and other things, recycling would have to be part of the infrastructure,” he said.

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