Facing shortages, chemists propose “mining” electronic waste for rare earth metals

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Some metals, like nickel and lithium, are household names; indeed, advertisements for batteries play on the exotic sound of “lithium-ion” as though it were a novelty, despite lithium’s ubiquity in electric cars and gadgets. Yet the true drivers of the digital economy are the rare earth metals, without which modern electronic devices would not work. Once virtually unknown outside of geochemistry research, these metals, which include neodymium and praseodymium, as constituents of powerful magnets used in hard drives and computer speakers. 

Rare earth elements are so named because they are uncommon on Earth; yet these metals, which comprise an entire row of the periodic table and then some, are clearly crucial to the modern economy. Unfortunately, the rarity of the rare earths extends beyond their dearth in the Earth’s crust. Recently, they’ve become rarer in human supply chains, as evidenced by recent price spikes: the price of neodymium surged 75% between January 2020 to December 2020, and terbium doubled in price, according to a Physics Today report from 2021. 

To the United States, control over these resources is a matter of market stability. Russian dominance over nickel and a power grab for a Ukrainian lithium reserve exacerbated existing supply chain shortages. 

Hence, the scramble for rare earth elements has prompted an intriguing proposal from the influential Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). The  United Kingdom–based learned society with over 50,000 members recently proposed that rather than mining for increasingly scarce raw materials in the ground, perhaps it is time humans rummaged through junk drawers — or landfills — to feed consumer demand.

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