Belgium-based chemical group Solvay has opened two rare earth recycling units in France. In order to diversify its sources of supply and preserve resources, Solvay has developed a process for recovering rare earths contained in end-of-life equipment such as low-energy light bulbs, batteries or magnets.
First launched in 2007, the project required two years of research and development followed by two years of industrialization studies and site selection. The investment was officially approved in 2011. Solvay decided to focus initially on low-energy light bulbs because the recovery channels already exist. These light bulbs are rich in six different rare earths— lanthanum, cerium, terbium, yttrium, europium and gadolinium— which Solvay is now in a position to recycle while preserving 100% of their functional properties.
Used light bulbs are collected, sorted and processed by specialized companies who recycle their different components (glass, metals, plastics, mercury). The luminescent powders are shipped to the Solvay facilities: to Saint-Fons (Rhône-Alpes, France) first of all, where the rare earth concentrate is extracted and subsequently to La Rochelle (Charente Maritime, France), a plant that features unique expertise in separation technology in Europe. Once the rare earths have been separated, they are then reformulated into luminescent precursors that will be reused in the manufacture of new lamps.
Used in small quantities, rare earths play the role of ‘vitamins’ vital for the continuing development of new technologies, especially green technologies. Global demand for rare earths is growing at more than 6% per year, making these elements a strategic raw material. Recycling allows us to develop a new source of supply, and we aim to become the benchmark European player in this area.—Du Hua, Director of Solvay’s Rare Earths Systems business unit
A leader in rare earth-based formulations, Solvay develops a large number of innovations used in everyday applications (flat screens, low-energy light bulbs, automotive pollution control, high precision optics, etc.).