Back in 2010, I wrote three articles about the supply of rare earth elements, China's dominance of the world's supply, and efforts to develop alternative sources. It looks as if Japan, which is wholly dependent on imports to satisfy its need for rare earth elements, is taking the lead in developing new techniques and technologies for their use.
The Mainichi Daily News had two reports today about the subject. The first highlights a new recycling technology.
Mitsubishi Electric Corp. said Wednesday it has developed a device that extracts rare earth elements from used household air conditioners and hopes it will help in coping with shortages of rare earth elements and their high prices.
. . .
It can automatically take apart air-conditioner compressors and separate neodymium magnets from their rotors, according to the firm.
The collected rare earth elements will be provided to magnet makers for reuse in products.
. . .
The company raised the prices of new air-conditioner models that went on sale in November from those already on the market, citing the soaring prices of rare earth elements.
There's more at the link.
The second article brings news of a Japanese government initiative to develop techniques that use less rare earth elements in manufacturing.
The Japanese industry ministry said Wednesday it will offer a total of around 5 billion yen [about US $65 million] in subsidies for the development of technologies and other activities aimed at reducing the use of rare earth elements, amid concern over China's export restrictions on the minerals.
Selecting 49 projects of companies, universities and other institutions as eligible to receive the subsidies, the ministry aims to reduce the use of dysprosium, used for motors in hybrid vehicles and other products, by 30 percent in two years.
. . .
Among the selected projects was a method to recycle dysprosium from discarded refrigerators and air conditioners, aimed at recycling 13 tons of the rare earth element in fiscal 2015. Projects to develop technologies for creating products with a reduced amount of dysprosium were also chosen for the subsidies.
Again, more at the link.
Extraction of rare earth elements is difficult, costly and involves a high risk of pollution, while Chinese dominance of their production is dangerous from a strategic point of view. Given their critical importance in today's high-technology economy, one can only hope that both of these Japanese efforts are a success, and that this sort of innovation spreads to other countries.