Urban Mining

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Recycling rare earth metals is one of Japan’s growing endeavors looking forward. Kosaka, Japan, used to mine copper and coal. That ended twenty years ago when they couldn’t keep up with global competition. Now, some of those buildings have been converted for a new type of mining. Dubbed "urban mining," the process involves melting motherboards in a 200-foot furnace to then extract the traces of rare earth metals.

Crucial to many Japanese technologies, these rare earth elements have primarily been coming from China, but in September, China began to block their export to Japan. Uneven enforcement has allowed a few shipments through, but the semi-processed rare earths Japanese companies need to make their products aren’t allowed to flow between the two countries anymore. Although no formal ban has been placed on anyone besides Japan, China has reduced their export quotas for these important minerals.

Japan has huge stockpiles of used computers and cellphones that have now found new value. It has been estimated that Japan’s supply of used electronics could hold 300,000 tons of rare earths. Tapping this resource could help reduce their dependency on China. Japan’s trade minister has also asked that a “rare earth strategy” be included in the supplementary budget for this year.

Wind turbines, LCDs, and hybrid cars all include rare earths in their production process. Antimony, used in the silicon wafers of semiconductors, is just one of the rare earths that has been successfully extracted through urban mining. Neodymium, used in electric motors, is more difficult, and methods are still being developed for reclaiming it.

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I recently saw some pieces on shows like CNN and the journal with Joan Lunden on PBS that were talking about issues and solutions for industrial recycling. This is an interesting twist that could really become a game changer in the future. Whoever gets in at the beginning of the urban mining will possibly be a part of a new gold rush of sorts. I hope we start implementing such programs early on to reduce our dependence.

Companies depending on neodymium may consider to hoard the magnets as a precaution. If so, the RES market will remain volatile for many years to come.

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