The outlook to 2024 for wider and profitability in sourcing of recycled industrial minerals is very encouraging. There will be significant positive movement in the categories of feedstock availability, regulations as a stimulus, and the overall quality of sourced materials according to Smithers’s report The Future of Industrial Mineral and Metal Recycling to 2024
Recycling infrastructures will all undergo transformation – ranging from incremental improvements to game-changing technical breakthroughs.
In analysing the state-of-the-art technologies within the industrial metal and mineral recycling market, it is necessary to examine each phase in the waste materials value chain – and understand how it differs from sourcing of raw materials.
General flow for recovery and recycling for industrial minerals
At each stage there will be new impetus that can act as a driving force for improved and cost-effective recycling processes. Smithers analysis identifies the following four leading factors.
To understand where this market is headed, one must first identify the forces of change. These forces tend to drive industries in specific directions. In this case, the force of change can be visualised as being on two tiers. At the higher level, the World Economic Forum published in 2015 that there are five listed fundamental drivers that will advance the recycling industry:
For any business to survive, it must adhere to certain tenets of economics; most fundamentally that its basic supply and demand conditions are met. The growth of technology, specifically in the electronics industry, requires that there must be an ample supply of raw materials to meet the demand of new component production. A recent study by the University of Delaware gives the dire prediction that stocks of certain ‘technical minerals’ derived from natural sources, cannot meet demand for the future production of laptops and smartphones. This also extends into materials required for solar panels, hybrid and electric vehicles. This will drive the need for enhanced recycling of waste electronics and electronic equipment.
The use of recycled industrial minerals must be cost-effective. Market competition between companies helps keep production costs low. Reducing costs then becomes an important driver of technology change with a target to provide a competitive advantage.
Unmet technology needs
The topic of unmet technology needs within the recycling industry is very extensive, and one where there has been significant movement as of late. The primary common steps within the recycling industry are sourcing, collection, sorting, and processing. This leads to the awareness that each step along that path offers opportunity for technical improvement. Sourcing is locating the existing materials that contain the sought-after mineral. Determining the composition of a given material can be a challenge. Collection of the materials at their ‘end-of-life’ state can be a technical task as well. Sorting can be as simple as separating paper from plastic; or it can be a highly complex process, such as the removal of ferrous from non-ferrous materials. Sorting has witnessed a significant amount of technological advancement. The stage that includes recovery of the desired mineral is also one with technical challenges.
The sourcing of waste materials is the initial step in the recycling process. It is where waste materials are first sourced and subsequently collected. After sourcing, the material is then sorted by its content. The mineral that is desired is then isolated and purified. The final stage is where the recovered mineral is placed recycled back into the marketplace. Recycled minerals come in many forms, and from differing manufacturing processes. Some recycled minerals are collected in a ‘post-consumer’ environment, while others originate in closed waste streams.
The sought-after minerals are ferrous, non-ferrous metals, and rare earth elements (REEs). This results in a highly diverse, complex recycling industry. There are several categories that become the source of these desired minerals. One category is where the source of the mineral is the by-product of another industrial process. Synthetic gypsum is the most well-known example for this category, being made as a by-product of the emission control processes in coal-fired power plants.
Variations within this category would include slag and the waste generated in the maintenance of refractories. In both cases, what was once thought of as waste is now seen as an opportunity for recovering important secondary materials. Slag is the by-product in the production of iron, steel, and aluminum.
New importance has been placed upon slag for the captured minerals that are contained. Spent refractory material can be rich in captured magnesium-oxide and the spent material is now seen as a valuable commodity. In 2019 for example Smithers forecasts the global value of ferrous slags will reach $22.8 billion in 2019; while non-ferrous slag will be worth $4.66 billion.
Another source for secondary material is the existing product at its ‘end-of-life’. The definition of ‘end-of-life’ is taken from an EU report titled – Supporting Environmental Sound Decisions for Waste Management
. The definition is “[a] product at the end of its useful life that will potentially under-go reuse, recycling, or recovery.” This is commonly considered ‘post-consumer’ waste and includes items such as automobiles, major appliances, cell phones and electronics.
Both construction and demolition waste are a special form of this category and have recently become an area of interest. This is because they constitute a major source of untapped materials that for a long time has gone straight to landfill. Many critical minerals are contained in this form of waste and therefore important to recover.
An interesting category in waste recovery is waste generated in the extraction of the primary materials themselves. This includes things like overburden, tailings, and fines. As with construction waste, these were once ignored and considered unmarketable. A promising form of this is bauxite – the raw material that is the basis for alumina and eventually aluminium. Bauxite is a mineral rich material, but is highly alkaline and not without challenges in recovering the captured minerals.
E-waste is a very promising category. It is considered hazardous waste, so there are challenges in handling this waste stream. E-waste contains very important REEs, which are very valuable – especially as they are essential to many modern technologies, like electric vehicles and wind turbines. Special processes are required to recover minerals and a specialised industry is evolving.