Urban mining pioneers refine rare earth metals from electronic waste

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

A Finnish consortium has developed an innovative method for extracting rare earth metals (REEs) from electronic waste, an approach known as urban mining. This not only conserves natural resources but also reduces dependence on China. Despite current legislation not fully supporting the needs of such circular economy projects, the consortium members have diligently pushed the project forward, painting a promising picture for the future.

Urban mining refers to the extraction of metals from waste streams. This methodology not only helps to avoid environmental destruction but also significantly reduces energy consumption compared to traditional mining, with recovery rates reaching up to a hundredfold. There is a clear need for urban mining, as currently, only an estimated fifth of all electronic waste is collected and recycled.

The Finnish consortium has embarked on refining recycled materials from magnets and circuit boards, aiming for environmentally friendly and economically viable business. At the core of the consortium are the expertise of the chemistry department at the University of Jyväskylä and regional actors: energy and water company Alva, electronics producer responsibility expert Elker, and Finnish mining and factory service specialist Tapojärvi Oy.

We had the opportunity to interview Alva’s Development Manager Risto Ryymin about their project’s progress. He explains that the consortium’s competitive advantage lies in a hydrometallurgical process developed by researchers over the years.

How did your project get started?

Our project began in 2010 when we conducted measurements on power plant ash with the University of Jyväskylä. We found interesting substances, such as rare earth elements, and decided to investigate whether they could also be found in peat ash. Once we confirmed their presence, we started looking into how we could recover them.

Through extraction, we realized that substances dissolve in acids in different ways, and we understood that we could recover various metals in a controlled manner. Once the method was ready, we applied for a global process patent, which is valid until the end of November 2032. At this stage, we wanted to explore whether our patent could also be suitable for handling electronic waste. We were particularly interested in selectively recovering rare earth elements – knowing that expensive metals like gold and copper could be separated due to existing demand.

Now we have a method that allows for the highly pure separation of various metals from acid solutions, suitable for recovering not only gold and copper but also REEs like germanium, gallium, indium, and neodymium.

How was your team assembled?

The University of Jyväskylä has been involved from the very beginning. Otherwise, the project has been supported by Business Finland. Elker joined through discussions with the Technology Industries of Finland, and then Tapojärvi also joined through personal contacts. We are a good trio: we are not competitors but work in different industries with a common interest. We can be really open with each other, which is a very strong advantage.

Is there any similar project in the world?

We have identified a pilot project in Canada and a New Zealand startup that is planning a demo plant in Europe. They use the same type of process as us, but as far as we know, no one else is yet recovering REEs. While they are currently available cheaply on the market, it is becoming increasingly evident that as the green transition and digitalization advance, our reliance on Russian sources will be supplanted by a dependency on China. The European Union relies on external sources for critical metals, and establishing a mine takes easily over 20 years.

What stage is your project at now?

We have progressed to technology readiness levels 5–6, from static to dynamic operations. Utilizing a bench scale demo plant at the University of Jyväskylä, we can now deliver metals on a larger scale with continuous feed and processing. When we run extraction solutions, we know what is happening in them, and based on this pilot equipment, we can already say that there is no fundamental conflict that would pose insurmountable challenges for us in the future.

What are your current plans regarding the industrial-scale facility?

Our current aim is to establish a pre-commercial, technology readiness 7–8 level factory where the entire process operates seamlessly, enabling the recovery of rare earth metals and solid precious metals such as copper. At this stage, we can observe how the overall process functions and work on optimizing it. This will provide us with sufficient experience to begin planning a commercial facility. Our goal is to start construction around 2027.

We are also considering licensing our technology. Our business model will be solidified in the next phase as we conduct market analyses and determine the best revenue model.

Do you already know where you will establish the facility?

The pre-commercial facility will be located in Jyväskylä, as it is close to research facilities, and we can rely on the university for analytics and process development. The commercial facility will be situated in Finland or elsewhere in Europe – somewhere near material streams where we can accumulate the types of circuit boards we can process.

What should be considered when using waste or by-products as raw materials?

The most crucial aspect is legislation, which is tailored to the needs of a linear economy and does not yet fully consider the principles of circular economy. According to the law, a raw material is either material or waste, and unfortunately, in our case, it is classified as waste. For example, if you throw away a functional mobile phone into the trash, it becomes waste, and if someone wanted to utilize its raw materials, they would be classified as waste as well. This complicates the utilization of electronic waste and imposes numerous administrative obligations on us, which undermine the profitability of our operations.

Circular economy projects also involve multiple stakeholders, which slows down decision-making, as decisions need to pass through several administrations. Our goal is to establish a startup that provides relief in this regard and facilitates ensuring that intellectual property rights are always retained.

Have you encountered any other challenges during your journey?

So far, we haven’t encountered major challenges, but this journey has been a learning experience for us as well: the most challenging aspect has been challenging our own thinking as we engage in work that deviates from the norm. However, learning something new is also interesting, I must admit.

What kind of partners have you had to assist you?

We have had two crucial partners right from the beginning: Jyväskylä University, which has focused on theoretical research, and the engineering and consulting firm Elomatic, from whom we have received highly professional assistance in practical process planning and organizing tasks. Since no one in our consortium has expertise in chemistry, their support has been invaluable.

What is your goal? How profitable can urban mining be?

Our goal is to pursue profitable operations that promote circular economy and offer solutions to challenges related to waste and raw material shortages. Our initial calculations predict very short payback periods for our investments: we are talking about a few years if everything goes smoothly. Of course, we are prepared for challenges that may arise along the way.

We see that REEs can become a valuable source of recycling materials for global manufacturers, and our commercial-scale facility could potentially process up to 20% of Europe’s printed circuit board waste.

What tips would you give to others advancing circular economy projects?

First and foremost, believe in your cause, even if things don’t always go as planned right away. It is also important to build a network of partnerships for support: it helps you move forward without having to know everything yourself.

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