Rare-earth materials, INL | Homeland Security Newswire

Rare earth elementsSalvage yard as a source for rare-earth elements

Published 6 February 2018

As the United States seeks a stable domestic supply of rare-earth elements – essential to high-tech instruments and electronics – researchers are looking to the salvage yard to see what might be lurking under the hoods and in the doors of light-duty cars and trucks. Rare-earth elements (REEs) are not scarce but scattered, meaning they typically can’t be found in economically exploitable concentrations. They have become increasingly sought after, however, since they are used in high-strength magnets, electric motors, and consumer goods like laptops, tablets and cellphones. A single smartphone can contain nine rare-earth elements alone.

As the United States seeks a stable domestic supply of rare-earth elements – essential to high-tech instruments and electronics – researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are looking to the salvage yard to see what might be lurking under the hoods and in the doors of light-duty cars and trucks.

Rare-earth elements (REEs) are not scarce but scattered, meaning they typically can’t be found in economically exploitable concentrations. They have become increasingly sought after, however, since they are used in high-strength magnets, electric motors, and consumer goods like laptops, tablets and cellphones. A single smartphone can contain nine rare-earth elements alone.

INL says that Ruby Nguyen and Devin Imholte both specialize in supply chain analysis for INL and the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), an Energy Innovation Hub funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. In CMI’s first five years, there was a focused effort on computer hard disk drives to quantify what REEs could be recovered from the magnets inside them. Working with counterparts within INL and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the research indicated that recovering REEs from hard drives would meet less than 1 percent of global magnet demand.

With rising sales of plug-in electric and hybrid electric vehicles, the focus has shifted to the automotive industry. Nguyen and Imholte proposed to study rare-earth metals in autos after reading a Frost & Sullivan market analysis of transportation and industrial motors.

They contacted a number of salvage yards, eventually coming to an arrangement with James Boone of Intermountain Auto Recycling in nearby Rigby, Idaho. He also operates a business in Idaho Falls called iPull, specializing in parts. Intermountain buys about five vehicles a day at auctions and from insurance companies and repair shops.

Working with Imholte and Nguyen, Boone will find the vehicle they want to examine and strip it down to parts, which he sells at cost to INL. These are sent to the INL Research Center (IRC) to be disassembled. The disassembled magnets are sent to the Center for Advanced Energy Studies for analysis.