[Editor's note: A wide variety of products -- including consumer electronics, solar panels and more -- use rare earth minerals, which are pricey and can be environmentally damaging to mine. This article discusses a process, developed by Honda and Japan Metals & Chemicals, that claims to be the first mass-production process for recycling those minerals. It's applying the process to hybrid-vehicle batteries and scrap metal from cars, but if the process is successful, it could potentially have implications for other industries. To read more about rare earth materials and other minerals, see "Can a Chinese trade group make rare earth minerals greener?" "HP, Intel and GE start fund to boost conflict-free minerals" and "Finding gold in waste."]
Honda has announced it has teamed up with the Japan Metals & Chemicals Company to develop what is being hailed as the world's first mass-production rare-earth recycling process.
The companies confirmed late last week that they have developed a new technique for extracting 17 rare chemical elements from used nickel-metal hydride batteries collected from Honda hybrid vehicles at dealers in Japan, North America and Europe.
Previous techniques for extracting rare earth metals have been undertaken on a relatively small scale and have required highly controlled conditions. But while Honda has provided relatively few details on the precise nature of its process, it claims to have developed the first process in the world to "extract rare earth metals as part of a mass-production process at a recycling plant".
The company added that the technique had already been successfully tested on around 2,000 batteries.
"Previously, Honda had been applying a heat treatment to used nickel-metal hydride batteries and recycling nickel-containing scrap for recycling use as a raw material for stainless steel," the company said in a statement.
"However, the successful stabilisation of the extraction process at the plant of Japan Metals & Chemicals Co made possible the extraction of approximately 80 per cent of rare earth metals contained in used nickel-metal hydride batteries, with purity as high as that of newly mined and refined metals."
The company said it would use the extracted metals in new nickel-metal hydrid batteries and other components, adding that it is also investigating techniques for extracting a wider range of rare earth metals.
Growing numbers of firms are currently stepping up efforts to recycle or find alternatives to rare earth metals, after China announced it will place export limits on some rare earth materials, sparking fears of a supply crunch.
In related news, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced it will convene a new forum on the potential risks presented by the lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars.
The forum, which will take place next month, will bring together regulators and representatives from the auto industry, with a view to assessing whether new safety rules are required to cover the expanding electric vehicle market.
Questions have been raised about the safety of electric car batteries after a Chevrolet Volt caught fire last year, following crash testing, while plug-in hybrid specialist Fisker Automotive also undertook a recall late last year over potential issues with the batteries used in its Karma sports car.
This article originally appeared on BusinessGreen.com and is reprinted with permission.