Rare earths, E-waste and Green IT

Mountain Pass

Mountain Pass (Greg Vojtko/ The Press Enterprise)

The start with having a green datacenter was reducing energy consumption. Then we got the mission of reducing carbon emission and now there is the start of reducing water consumption (see the new sustainability metrics of the Green Grid). The next step will certainly be e-waste. We all know that E-waste is serious business and if not proper handled it can cause severe environmental damage and harm to human health. But there is also another side of the E-waste coin. E-waste is also about wasting rare earth metals.

The use of rare earth elements in IT technology has increased dramatically over the past years. New, advanced battery, magnet and optoelectronics technology is depending on the use of these rare earth metals. Rare earth magnets are small, lightweight, and have high magnetic strength so have become a key part of the miniaturization of electronic products. The key rare earth metals in magnets are neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium. For example neodymium is an important metal for hard disks. Another major use of rare earth oxides is in metal alloys. High performance alloys involving rare earth metals have an important uses in computer memory chips. Rare earth metals (particularly erbium) also act as laser amplifiers in increasingly important fibre optic communication cables. Through the 1950s, South Africa was the world’s rare earth source, using the rare earth metals bearing monazite mineral. From the 1960s until the 1980s, the Mountain Pase mine in California was the leading producer. At the current moment all these resources are dwarfed by the scale of Chinese Bayan Obo mines who are responsible for 45% of global rare earth metal production as you can see in the diagram below.

Rare earth metal production

Rare earth metal production (1 kt=106 kg)

For years, warnings have been sounded regarding an impending shortage of rare earth metals. Rare earths are hard to refine. It is challenging to separate trace elements of minerals from large amounts of ore in an environmentally safe way (rare-earth mining produces radioactive waste). Production costs are high and also bringing new sites in to production is costly. The limited supply of the minerals in the marketplace is mostly the result of economics and environmental concerns, not scarcity. Although a few rare earth minerals actually are rare. So called ‘light rare earth metals’ such as cerium are plentiful, but ‘heavy’ ones such as europium are growing harder to come by (see this article for more background info). This shortage has caused another recently developed source of rare earths, that is E-waste, that have significant rare earth components. New advances in recycling technology have made extraction of rare earths from electronic waste more feasible. In a recent article in the New York Times an example is given of  recycling plant that is currently operating in Japan. “In Kosaka, Dowa Holdings, the company that mined here for over a century, has built a recycling plant whose 200-foot-tall furnace renders old electronics parts into a molten stew from which valuable metals and other minerals can be extracted. The salvaged parts come from around Japan and overseas, including the United States. At Dowa’s plant, computer chips and other vital parts from electronics are hacked into two-centimeter squares. This feedstock then must be smelted in a furnace that reaches 1,400 degrees Celsius before various minerals can be extracted. The factory processes 300 tons of materials a day, and each ton yields only about 150 grams of rare metals.”

This makes you think twice about Green IT and E-waste. Rare earth metals are costly and difficult to produce in an environmentally safe way so there is a limited supply of the minerals in the marketplace and then at end of the life cycle we throw these precious and rare metals away and causing price increase and severe environmental damage in all parts of the world?!

“We have to stop using these elements and then, at the end of their first life, burying them,” said Steven Duclos, chief scientist at General Electric Co’s global research center in the article Rare-earth surge is wake-up call for industrials. “Obviously, as the price goes up, the recycling does begin to make economic sense.”

We had (see the other blogs about E-waste) already found legislative obligations and moral obligations (environment, crime fighting) to do something about E-waste and now we have also financial and economical reasons.What reasons do we want to have more  to take action and have a proper decommissioning of IT components?

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