Best Practice for Sustainable Rare Earth Supply
Building a Life Cycle Inventory Database for REEs
- To create a benchmark for the industry and to measure and communicate the environmental impact of rare earth oxide-containing (REO) products
- To develop the most up-to-date LCI for rare earth production by and for Rare Earth Industry Association members
- As the world places more and more emphasis on the “green technologies” to address climate change issues and UN sustainable development goals, it is increasingly important to understand the life cycles of the underlying raw materials.
- Several Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) studies pointed out that the production impacts of REOs are high in the case of several REO containing products. However, a lot of this data is sourced from literature or estimated so contains a high uncertainty.
- Other aspects – such as sustainability of raw materials supply – can be identified via data collection for a life cycle assessment.
Rare earth elements (REEs) are essential for the transition toward sustainability. However, rare earths are critical metals with one of the highest supply risks and environmental impacts.
LCA is a decision-making tool used to identify environmental burdens and evaluate the potential environmental impacts of goods or services over their life cycle from cradle-to-grave.
LCA has been standardized under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and forms the conceptual basis for a number of management approaches and standards that consider the life cycle impacts of product systems.
The system boundary of the study included a cradle-to-gate life cycle inventory from the extraction of the rare earth ore at the mine to the production of rare earth oxide.
Life Cycle Inventory (LCI)
The LCI catalogues all the environmental inputs and outputs of a product system. Data has been collected firsthand from measurements and estimates of key activities.
For the global LCI on rare earth oxide, specific primary data for the study was provided by member companies of the Rare Earth Industry Association and modeled using GaBi 2018 databases. The dataset includes production from two continents and represents 3 of the 4 possible mineralogical routes of rare earth production.
An excerpt of the complete LCI for ion adsorption route is shown here.
|Energy Resources||Crude oil||2.04||MJ|
|Uranium||6.59 x 10-5||MJ|
|Sand||6.51 x 10-5||Kg|
|Water use||1.66 x 105||Kg|
|Emissions to air||CO2||37.5||Kg|
|Emissions to water||Ammonium||0.398||Kg|
* these data are not real and are meant to serve as an example
- Analysis of literature and LCAs already performed
- Interviews with stakeholders, analysis of current REO mining and processing plants and data collection
- Method development for the REIA industry footprint
- Reporting: detailed results for REIA members
- Dissemination: discussion with policy DGS; broader communication to stakeholders
LCIA helps the rare earth industry pinpoint opportunities for improvement within its operations
Final results will be shared with the association members, which will help rare earth industry’s contribution to sustainable development.