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TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGES for the 21st Century

The decline of the nuclear industry poses huge challenges –  nuclear experts need not fear unemployment.

RADIOACTIVE WASTE DISPOSAL.  If all nuclear reactors stopped today, and all nuclear weapons were “turned off”, the world would still be left with a massive unsolved problem of disposing of the wastes.

BURYING THE CORPSES of nuclear reactors – (they prefer that nice word “decommissioning”) – a huge part of the unsolved waste problem.


Renewable energy is taking over –  it is supposed to be “clean and green”. And digital communications are also taking over the world.

But at present, both of these require “rare earths”

RARE EARTHS     On the one hand, these play a  part in the renewable energy future, for example in making wind turbines, and in electric car batteries.  Rare earths are a group of 17 chemical elements ( yttrium and the 15 lanthanide elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium)    Rare earth metals and alloys that contain them are used in many devices that people use every day such as: computer memory, DVD’s, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, car catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting and much more.

On the other hand, – the downside of rare earths  –  in the mining and processing of these rare earth minerals, radioactive wastes are produced.


Here is where a revolutionary change of thought is beginning to take place.  The world’s mining companies might just have to shrink their activities. The 20th Century way of dig it up, use it, throw its toxic wastes away (on indigenous land, of course) ) has to give way to a more intelligent way – of design and re-use.

This presents a twofold challenge. – first, to deal responsibly with the environmental dangers in mining and reprocessing.   Australia, for example, should grow up, and stop thinking it can make money out of digging up minerals, selling them overseas, and forgetting all about the wastes problem.  Australian rare earths company Lynas is in the process of trying to do just that. Lynas mines its rare earths in Australa, but ntends to do the processing in Malaysia, leaving Malaysia with the radioactive waste problem.


It is difficult now to retrieve these rare earths metals from mobile phones, computers, and wind turbines.

The answer is surely at the design stage –   design of all these technologies could be done so that the metals could be easily retrieved  – so that recycling can become the norm.  In this way,  there would be less need for mining and processing, and less impact on the environment.

Already, some companies are developing recycling of rare earths. How much faster this could all proceed, if also recycling were to be factored in at the design stage.

Honda Motor to recycle rare earths materials to be green, Economic Times, AP Jun 20, 2012  
TOKYO: Honda Motor  Co. said on Wednesday it will start recycling rare earths and other key materials in hybrid auto batteries  this year- a key innovation in the Japanese automaker’s effort to be green.

An example; Solvay’s  rare earth recycling activity in France

 Study on Rare Earths and Their Recycling, Final Report for The Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament “……..Conclusion on the development of a recycling scheme Öko-Institut proposes the development of a recycling scheme based on the following steps prior to a large scale implementation: 

A European Competence Network on Rare Earths with all relevant stakeholders such as recyclers, manufacturers, public authorities, politicians and researchers is seen as essential to successful implementation. 

Basic research is necessary, as only a few companies in Europe are involved in rare earth refining and processing at the beginning of the added-value chain. 

A European material flow analysis (MFA) is necessary in order to identify the main material flows and waste streams and the main manufacturers and actors in the added-value chain. Currently, national research institutions have to rely on knowledge and estimates from a few experts outside of Europe. 

The next step is to identify initial waste streams on the pre-consumer and postconsumer level, e.g. waste from the magnet and lighting industry, neodymium magnets from electric motors, used lamps and displays, re-use of large magnets and recycling of spent catalysts. 

The collection and treatment of many relevant wastes is already regulated by the WEEE Directive, the ELV Directive and the Battery Directive. Thus, the collection of rare earths containing wastes has to be specified and integrated in existing collection schemes. 

Large-scale R&D projects can develop pilot plants in order to learn about the complex chemical processes and the required sophisticated equipment. 

Recycling plants bear high financial risks due to the required high investment and the high uncertainty of the future price developments of rare earths. Therefore, it should be analysed whether the European Investment Bank (EIB) could reduce financial risks for investments in recycling. 

A recycling scheme of rare earths not only requires appropriate logistic and technical requirements but also an appropriate legal framework. Hence, an important step will be to adapt the legal EU framework in order to optimise postconsumer rare earth recycling…….

Below : China’s legacy of radioactive pollution from rare earths processing — toxic lake.

Whole villages between the city of Baotou and the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia have been evacuated and resettled to apartment towers elsewhere after reports of high cancer rates and other health problems associated with the numerous rare earth refineries there.



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