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Our university is very involved in the development of high profile sustainable chemistry. Many fields are covered like the development of organic solar panels, OLEDS, new lighting solutions, etc. But one area that has made particularly big advances in recent years is research on rare earths. Recently the European Commission also got involved in this research, and contacts with industry giants like Umicore and Rhodia (Solvay) are resulting in increasing research collaborations to help tackle this major issue – the supply of rare earths to our “knowledge and innovation” economy.
In the last year I’ve turned my attention to this chemistry of rare earths. The “rare earths” are a group that includes 17 elements found at the bottom of the periodic table, with exotic sounding names such as “neodymium”, “gadolinium” or “Europium”, the element named after Europe. Rare earths are found in everything from windmills, batteries, “ecological” light bulbs, car catalysts and hard disks to MRI contrast agents or optical lenses. So they play an important role in many technologies, especially in the “green” innovative ones. The electric car for example is impossible to build without these element
The reason why the separation and recycling of rare earths has become a major subject in “sustainable chemistry” is because of the geopolitical and economic problems associated with these elements. The U.S. used to be the largest producer of these elements but with the discovery of the elements on Chinese soil, the extraction of these elements has totally shifted to China.
“Rare earths” are not actually rare elements, but their extraction is difficult and, on top of that, China currently supplies over 97% of the rare earths to the world. Since these elements are critical in all aspects of a “green and high tech economy”, this supply risk is a major issue for Europe and the US. Both the European Commission and the U.S. President have therefore filed complaints against China’s recent restrictive policies and export quota on rare earths. Indeed, China recently implemented a very tough export quota on these elements, causing their prices to skyrocket, and putting the entire sector in jeopardy. They claim it is for environmental reasons, because their mining has a big environmental impact, but specialists doubt that this is the true reason for this bold move.
Whatever the reason may be, large fluctuations in price, a big environmental impact and an uncertain supply don’t square with the idea of sustainable chemistry. That’s why the European Commission started actively stimulating research on ways to recycle these elements from used items like batteries, lamps or hard disks. A tremendous effort has been made on this subject and, because of the urgency of this matter; big breakthroughs have already been achieved. Rhodia (Solvay) published last year their incentive to recycle rare earths from light bulbs and batteries in cooperation with Umicore. Both companies have developed innovative, patented processes to extract precious elements from these everyday objects.
Thus creating an independent, renewable and European, supply of rare earths.
That this research is of great importance is obvious when we look at the figures. In 2008, 27 million rare earth- containing light bulbs were collected (32% collect rate) and this amount is expected to at least triple in coming years because Europe has banned the use of the old energy consuming light bulbs. And the collection rate should also go up thanks to awareness- raising projects. The expensive rare earths contained in these energy saving light bulbs are the reason why their recycling is so interesting. For example “Terbium” reached record highs of 3000$/kg at the end of 2011, while in 2009 it was still sold for under 300$/kg and, more importantly, the supplies are not endless. The additional problem that the excavation of these elements is controlled by a single country, which has proved not to be wholly reliable, clearly shows why there is enough incentive to recycle.
That’s why a lot of research is still being done on the subject – both in universities and in the chemical industry with the aid of the European Commission. This is a nice example of how targeted stimulus can pay off quickly and can provide Europe with strategic advantages. Our lack of natural resources just means we don’t have a lot of valuable elements in our soil, but we certainly do have a lot of valuable elements in our houses and infrastructure. If we manage to effectively collect and recycle these elements, Europe can become much more resource independent and provide the chemical industry with a fresh wind and new power to face the 21the century.
Europium, the element named after Europe, is present as anti-counterfeit tracer in Euro banknotes. This highly luminescent compound, also used in energy saving light bulbs and TVs, lights up under UV light.