ICIS Innovation Award 2012: Closing the loop on rare earths

19 October 2012 09:47  [Source: ICB]

Rhodia, now part of Belgium's Solvay group, has opened the world's first rare earth recycling facility to recover a range of metallic elements from discarded low-energy light bulbs in France.

Rhodia La Rochelle team Rhodia


Rhodia's La Rochelle R&D team that developed the recycling project: (l to r) Frederic Cordelet, Anne-Claire Hureau, Nicolas Barthel, Gérard Bacles, Fabienne Fleury and Jean-Jacques Braconnier

The company has been developing technologies for recycling rare earths from various sources. This project - named Coleop'Terre - focuses on recycling the phosphor powders in used light bulbs, which comprise 3% of the bulbs' weight and contain 5-20% rare earths.

Rhodia decided to focus initially on low-energy light bulbs because the recovery channels are already in place. According to the company, some 300m used low-energy bulbs are recycled in France every year.

The oxides of the rare earth elements cerium, europium, lanthanum, terbium and yttrium are the most important for the lighting industry, because they are used to produce the phosphor mix contained in fluorescent lamps. The phosphor white powder inside the lamp converts ultraviolet light into visible light.

Rhodia's rare earths recycling development programme started in 2007, and required two years of research and development (R&D) followed by two more years of industrialisation studies and site selection.

Nicolas Barthel, Rhodia's R&D lab manager at La Rochelle, France, says: "The project is the first of its kind in terms of chemistry." He adds that all the R&D work took place at La Rochelle, amounting to some 26,000 hours in total, up until patenting.

Lyon, France, was chosen as the location for the recovery and first-stage processing plants for two reasons. First, there was capacity already available at the Saint Fons site following the closure of organic chemical production there in 2005. Second, the town's central location in France is beneficial for logistical reasons related to collecting and recovering the light bulbs and components.

The Saint Fons facility, which will process the phosphor powders and produce a rare earths concentrate, is expected to treat several thousands of tonnes a year of used phosphor powders in the first phase. Debottlenecking to achieve full capacity is planned for 2013, and is expected to be able to recycle several thousand tonnes of light bulbs.

The concentrated rare earths are transported by road in packaged powder form to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast where further processing takes place to yield pure solutions from which phosphor precursors will be produced, closing the production loop. The rare earths are then delivered as tailor-made luminescent precursor formulations to the light bulb manufacturers.


Rare earths are vital to many renewable technologies such as electric vehicles, wind turbines and low-energy lighting. About 97% of the world's rare earth supply is in China. Some mining projects exist elsewhere (Brazil, Malaysia, India and Kazakhstan) but the more advanced ones produce common (light) rare earths, while the most rare (heavy) ones are not yet operational because the deposits are difficult to mine.

According to Rhodia, overall demand for rare earths is growing at an annual rate of 6-10%, and will reach 185,000 tonnes in 2015, from 125,000 tonnes in 2010. World production in 2011 was 130,000 tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey.

Access to rare earths from China is getting increasingly difficult: illegal mines have been closed, export quotas are being reduced year after year and additional customs duties are being imposed. Rhodia says that some additional capacity for light rare earths is planned; however, for heavy rare earths, the situation is more complicated and projects outside of China will not be mature before 2014-2015.

As a result, recycling technologies are of high interest, says Rhodia, adding that the opening of its "urban mine" will supply up to 50% of its heavy rare earth needs and reduce its dependency on Chinese material.

By: Elaine Burridge
+44 20 8652 3214

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