Rare earth metals (REMs) are at the core of our essential technologies. Without them our mobile phones, computers and electric vehicles would cease to function.

By 2035 the demand for rare earth metals is expected to grow from today’s figure of 150,000 tonnes to approximately 400,000 tonnes creating exponential pressure on global supply chains.

Current recovery methods of REMs are energy intensive (e.g. high temperatures about 1000oC) and involve large amounts of corrosive materials. Therefore, a cleaner and simpler way of recovering REMs is urgently needed.

Recently, scientists at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) and Tecnalia in Spain have developed an innovative process involving environmentally friendly chemicals to improve REM recovery methods.

Project leader Dr Cristina Pozo-Gonzalo explains after separating the metals from the used product, researchers use advanced electrolytes known as ionic liquids to recover the REMs.

This is achieved through a process of electrodeposition at temperatures below 100oC, significantly better than previous methods which reached about 1000 oC.

This new method has great potential and minimises the generation of toxic and harmful waste explains project leader, Dr Cristina Pozo-Gonzalo.

“Our work addresses a key knowledge gap in the REM recycling process, and is an important early step towards establishing a clean and sustainable processing route for REMs and alleviating the pressures on these critical elements.”

The team is working on several projects, focusing on widening the methodology to apply to other valuable metals that are used in energy storage systems.