By Adam Currie — Exclusive to Rare Earth Investing News
Japanese automobile manufacturer Honda (NYSE:HMC) announced that it has teamed up with Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. to develop what is being hailed as the world’s first mass-production rare earth recycling process.
In a press release, Honda stated that it will pursue recycling of resources by making use of a new process for recycling rare earth metals.
Until now, techniques for the extraction of rare earth have been undertaken on a relatively minor scale and required highly controlled conditions, making the process questionable in terms of both logistics and feasibility.
However, the companies confirmed that they have established “the world’s first process to extract rare earth metals from various used parts in Honda products, in an actual mass-production process at a recycling plant, not an experimental process.”
They added that as part of this effort they will also be working in conjunction with each other to begin extracting rare earth metals from used nickel-metal hydride batteries collected from hybrid vehicles at dealers inside and outside of Japan, before the end of April.
Honda not alone
Honda’s revelation came soon after Toyota Motor Corp.‘s (TSE:7203) announcement that it has developed a method to manufacture hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) without the use of increasingly expensive rare earth elements (REEs).
Toyota, the world’s top producer of fuel-saving hybrid vehicles, also stated that it could bring the technology to market if the price of rare earth does not recede.
Honda confirmed that it has sold 800,000 hybrids worldwide and said that it has already successfully tried its technique on approximately 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., Ltd. made possible the extraction of approximately 80% of rare earth metals contained in used nickel-metal hydride batteries, with purity as high as that of newly mined and refined metals.”
China sent shock waves through the market in 2010 when it imposed export quotas on all REEs. The announcement resulted in increased concern throughout the manufacturing sector, and has led to capital being channeled into non-Chinese companies with REEs as a primary focus.
Move not surprising
The move by the Japanese manufacturing sector to seek REE recycling methods is not surprising considering it is part of an alliance with the US and EU, all of which moved in on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to challenge China’s restrictive export policies for the metals.
Until now auto manufacturers have had to rely heavily on rare earth, with more and more examining alternatives to reduce quantities used, or replace REEs altogether.
To consolidate its rare earth industry, China recently created a 155-member association which it hopes will regulate production.
Honda has also confirmed that it plans to further expand the recycling of REEs in the future, as the newly-established process enables the extraction of rare earth metals from a variety of used parts in addition to hydride batteries.
Reasoning behind the move
While the shift to this type of recycling might be hailed as noble from an environmental perspective, many will be all too aware that it is a clear indication that Japan wants to shift away from a market that it considers to be unfairly controlled by China.
However, China has hit back by suggesting that its steps to regulate the industry are in line with WTO rules and are meant to protect the environment. In response to the recently announced investigation, the country’s top industry regulator underlined that “China will respond in this case.”
In a public address, Zhu Hongren, chief engineer of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said: “All these measures, such as export quota controls, are meant to diminish environmental risks that have resulted from the disorderly development of the rare-earth industry,” adding that not regulating the sector will bring more harm to the environment.
“China isn’t manipulating the prices of rare earths, and only half of its (export) quota was met last year,” he pointed out.
As reported by a Chinese media source, Zhang Anwen, deputy secretary of the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, stated that other countries’ requests are “unreasonable,” and that the increasing prices of REEs reflect market conditions.
Zhu said China’s regulations, which include production caps, export quotas, and strict emission standards, were adopted after a full consideration was made regarding “the ability of the environment to ensure effective supplies of rare-earth metals.”
According to the ministry, processing one metric ton of rare earth produces approximately seven tons of strong acid.
“The recovery rate for rare earths is less than 50 percent,” he added. “In some illegal mines, the rate is as low as 20 percent. So if we can’t control and manage illegal activities, there will be significant damage to plant life and underground water supplies.”
Securities Disclosure: I, Adam Currie, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.