Honda to begin first rare earth metal recycling program

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These rare-earth oxides are used as tracers to determine which parts of a watershed are eroding. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.

A collection of rare earth oxides. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Wikipedia)

Reuters reports that Honda Motor Co. is preparing to launch a mass-recycling endeavor intended to extract rare earth metals from parts of used automobiles. The operation, which will be the first of its kind, will place global automakers in a better position to obtain the very expensive materials, which are controlled almost exclusively by China. Rare earth minerals are used in the production of hybrid and electric vehicle batteries.

A nickel-metal hydride expedition

Honda is seeking to gain an edge in the race for rare earth minerals by partnering with Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. As early as this month, the corporate partners will begin to scavenge for rare earth metals from used nickel-metal hydride batteries and other component parts collected from hybrid vehicle dealerships worldwide.

Excavating more than 80 percent of rare earth metals

By using a patented recovery process that was recently devised, Honda and Japan Metals & Chemicals believe they will be able to extract more than 80 percent of the rare earth metals found in the batteries and other parts. The recycling process should enable the automaker to produce a variety of like products for new hybrid and electric vehicles.

Considering that China has control of 95 percent of global rare earth materials and have used this leverage to send export controls of rare earth sky high, any advantage the rest of the world can gain is desired by the market. In the meantime, Japanese automakers and other companies that have used rare earth minerals in large amounts are looking for methods of reducing dependance on the materials by researching viable alternatives. Additional government subsidies to fund research into alternatives to rare earth metals are also being courted.

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A rare earth elements primer

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) defines rare earth elements (alternatively referred to as rare earth minerals and rare earth metals) as a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table. Fifteen of these are metallic lanthanides, and the other two are scandium and yttrium. The latter two occur in the same ore deposits where lanthanides are found, and the two elements display similar chemical properties.

Rare earth elements are plentiful in the Earth’s crust, but because of their geochemical properties, they are widely dispersed and not often found in commercially exploitable amounts in any one place, though there are clusters in areas of China. According to Wikipedia, rare earth elements in general are heavier than iron and are produced by supernova nucleosynthesis.

Understanding rare earth elements



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