This is the third and final part of my blog on critical metals and cleantech (read Part 1 and Part 2). This one aims to give an overview of where the opportunities are presenting themselves and those that are leading and innovating in the sector today. For many of these metals, processes to recycle post-industrial waste are fairly well established. It’s in the post-consumer waste streams where the opportunities lie, and where the challenges are harder to overcome.
Oakdene Hollins recently conducted a review of opportunities for the recovery of 14 different critical raw materials. A few results from that review are shown below, along with the estimated size of the market. Some of these opportunities are simply a need for greater implementation of existing technologies e.g. aerospace, batteries and packaging; whereas others represent longer term opportunities.
Recovery opportunities for select critical metals
Indium, in the table above, and Gallium, also identified as a recycling opportunity by Oakdene, already have well established recycling routes for post-industrial waste from the production of LCDs. Around two thirds of the metal is wasted during LCD production but with efficient recycling processes this waste is captured and recycled and actually contributes over one half of global supply.
As I mentioned in Part 2, these metals are also by-products of base metals which means that investing in recyclers is often the best way for investors to gain exposure to these commodities. So if these metals were to experience the kind of price increases that we’ve seen for rare earths, Oakdene says it would positively impact on several recyclers and smelting waste refiners: 5N Plus, a Canadian company; Dowa Mining, Japan’s biggest supplier of Indium; Umicore, a diversified metals recycler based in Belgium; and Asahi Holdings, a Japanese recycler of rare and precious metals.
Oakdene case study: 5N Plus and Indium
TSX-listed 5N Plus has a process to recycle tellurium and indium from solar panels. It collects and removes the tellurium and indium coated glass from solar panels, crushes it and pours acid onto it to dissolve the metals. The glass fragments are then removed and the metal rich solution is refined and processed to extract high purity metals. With the introduction of flat screen TVs, demand for indium has grown and although the concentrations of the metal are much higher in solar panels than they are in flat screen TVs, the 5N process has the potential to be applied to this post-consumer waste stream too when the first generation are thrown out in the next few years.
The urgency to increase recycling of indium is put into sharp focus by Swiss VC firm Mountain Cleantech which says there’s only 11,000 tonnes of indium which can be exploited worldwide – and primary annual production is 550 tonnes.
Rare earths (Dysprosium and Neodymium) remain very difficult to recover economically because they are found in such small quantities in the various waste streams. Operations that recover them from post-consumer waste are currently almost non-existent.
Extracting them from the rest of the product they’re contained in, such as an air conditioner or hard disk drive, is the first step. After that they must undergo a chemical process to refine them. It’s time consuming and costly and many joint ventures and projects have been initiated to try to find more efficient processes. Here’s an overview of who’s currently doing what:
• French chemicals giant Rhodia is particularly active in this area. It’s been researching and developing processes to recycle rare earths from lamps and magnets, and is collaborating with Umicore to recycle them from hybrid car batteries.
• Reconserve, part of Chemconserve in Holland, claims to be the first company to have developed and pilot-tested technology to recover rare earth elements from fluorescent lamps.
• Dowa Holdings appears to be researching methods to extract rare earths from WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment).
• The University of Birmingham has developed a “hydrogen decrepitation” technique to reduce a rare earth magnet to powder prior to elemental separation or for blending back into a magnet formulation.
Oakdene case study: Hitachi
Hitachi is piloting a process to extract them from air conditioning motors and from hard disk drives, and they’re also developing a refining process. The Hitachi process is partly manual and partly automated, as it involves cutting open the hard disk drives and removing the rare earth magnets, so that they can be recycled using metallurgical processes. It may be possible to use this technique with larger magnets such as those from electric vehicles and wind turbines, but the preferred technique with these is likely to be ‘re-manufacture’ and reuse wherever this is possible, and materials recycling when this is impractical. The lifetime of the latter products is substantial (10-40 years) and therefore there will be a time lag before such materials become available. Hitachi said it expects recycling to meet 10 percent of its needs by 2013 from almost zero now.
Platinum group metals are used in items such as flat screens and hard drives. In the UK, Veolia is trialing the recovery of platinum group metals from street dust which has come from car exhausts fitted with catalytic converters, which often contain platinum as the catalyst. Veolia will use two technologies — conventional soil washing, which removes plastics and metals and glass from street sweepings, and a technique to remove the metals from the fine dust that is left after they have washed the soil. It hopes to process thousands of tonnes of the dust every year.
Zinc, though not in Oakdene’s table (it has ‘moderately critical’ status currently) remains one of the most in-demand metals with recycling contributing around 30% of supply. I wanted to mention it here because of the interesting technology one company is using to recycle it (from post-industrial, rather than post consumer, waste this time).
ZincOx, an AIM-listed company, has a zinc mining project in Yemen but is shifting its focus to recycling. Recycling is obviously greener, but the company’s novel recycling technology, which allows it to recover zinc along with pig iron from steel waste, means it makes more sense economically too.
The ZincOx process allows it to efficiently extract the metals from electric arc furnace dust (EAFD), a hazardous by-product of the steelmaking process, without the need for government subsidy which many EAFD recyclers rely on. Recovery rate and quality is higher than conventional recycling processes and it produces no waste. It’s currently developing its first plant in Korea, which has an abundance of EAFD, give the size of its steel industry. When phase 1 of this project is complete in Q2 next year, it will process 200,000 tonnes per annum and will be the biggest of its kind in Asia. ZincOx has an off-take agreement with Korea Zinc, which will take all of the group’s production phase 1.
Returning to our post-consumer focus though now and there are several issues that Oakdene encourages investors looking at opportunities in this space to bear in mind.
Key issues for recycling critical metals from post-consumer waste
• Collection & separation: many of the relevant products are not collected for recycling, and if they are, often the products are not separated from other waste streams, like WEEE for example, which can make the later recovery of the critical materials impossible.
• Dispersion: many critical materials are found often in low concentrations, and large volumes of waste may provide only small quantities of material. This hinders the recovery of metals such as tantalum from circuit boards. This is where looking at opportunities in industrial wastes, which may not have been previously considered as sources of critical metals.
• Uncertainty: Implementation of large scale recycling requires significant investment; this is increasingly true for critical materials. Uncertainty about future quantities and qualities of waste streams e.g. the lifetime of products, legislation and the value of materials can discourage the establishment of recycling activities.
• Likelihood of substitution: high prices and in particular absolute shortages can drive substitution (this risk factor was covered in more detail in Part 2).
• Scale: A decision needs to be made as to whether to compete with a large integrated refinery e.g. Umicore or to focus on a niche technology or application. The likes of Umicore benefit from extensive knowledge and expertise and have spread their risk across a range of metals. However certain metals, e.g. rare earths, are not easily recycled by an integrated refinery and niche technologies could prove competitive.
• Stage of value chain: Investments is sorting technology and pre-processing are also attractive, if initially appearing less exciting. For example Airbus/Suez proved the investment merit of this through its innovative aircraft deconstruction pilot project to carefully sort the different metals and alloys with aim of maximising recycling revenue.
And as Mountain Cleantech says, any downturn in prices will of course affect the commercialisation of resource recovery companies because they are semi dependent, at least, on strong prices.
With that, I’ll finish on a quote from Thomas Graedel, a professor of industrial ecology at Yale University, provided to me by Mountain Cleantech: “By failing to recycle metals and simply disposing of these kinds of metal, economies are foregoing important environmental benefits and increasing the possibility of shortages. If we do not have these materials readily available at reasonable prices, a lot of modern technology simply cannot happen.”
Article by Tom Whitehouse. Tom is the Chairman of the London Environmental Investment Forum (LEIF), a conference platform which connects environmental innovation with capital, and the Founder and CEO of LEIF’s Initiating Partner, Carbon International, a fund-raising consultancy for environmental and cleantech industries.