Rare Earths: Emerging Green Technologies

Rare Earths: Emerging Green Technologies

Ruth Miller, Environmental & Quality Manager.

I joined Less Common Metals Ltd in 2015 as an Environmental Coordinator to develop and maintain their environmental management system, which is accredited to the international environmental management standard, ISO14001. I have worked in the environmental area for over 20 years and I am aware of the significant challenges this area presents to many businesses. LCM’s approach has always been to embed core ethical and environmental standards into the heart of the business, and this makes the meeting of environmental, health and safety standards far easier.

Here at LCM, the core business is the manufacture of rare earth metal alloys, such as neodymium-ferro-boron and samarium cobalt, which are vital elements in providing hi-tech magnets for powering green technologies, such as wind turbines and hybrid electric vehicles. For example, each Toyota Prius contains 2.7kg of neodymium-based magnets!

The rare earth industry is dominated by much cheaper supply and production from companies in China, which has historically operated far lower ethical and environmental standards that can lead to significant environmental impacts. LCM is actively working to establish non-Chinese alternatives for critical raw materials with a focus on ensuring they are produced to the highest environmental, quality, health and safety standards. In line with its corporate responsibility commitments, raw material sources are audited to ensure they are not supplied from conflict areas or companies that have unacceptable health, safety and environmental standards. This aligns with the manufacturer’s requirements for responsible sourcing.

LCM is actively involved with several European Union-funded research projects (such as SecREEts and DEMETER) pioneering new technologies to provide ethically sourced raw materials and establish an integrated European supply chain. This includes the recovery and recycling of rare earth permanent magnet motors and generators, from electric vehicles which would minimise the environmental and human health impacts from the mining of the raw materials in the Far East. The company is also working on utilising technologies developed in China, but operating them to European standards, such as the production of rare earth metals from oxides by electrolysis.

In addition to external projects, our ISO14001 accreditation requires us to demonstrate continual environmental improvement by setting and achieving environmental objectives. One project, aimed at energy reduction, has involved the phased replacement of lighting throughout the factory with low-energy LEDs. This has reduced our consumption by 100MWh. We are also assessing ways of further reducing energy consumption by fitting variable load devices to furnaces to reduce load when they are not in operation. Other projects include the introduction of better recycling facilities. This has achieved a massive 50% reduction in waste to landfill since 2015. We also harvest rainwater on-site to use in our co-reduction process and are investigating other ways of using this water in-house; options being considered are for use in toilets and cooling the furnaces.

Staff training and awareness-raising are key in managing environmental risk. All LCM staff are IOSH trained and we also provide in-house training on spills response and the legal obligations associated with handling and disposing of waste, as well as more general environmental awareness-raising sessions.

All in all, this provides for a very interesting, challenging and diverse role within a company fully committed to maintaining a key position within a vital, growing industry.