An announcement from Honda on April 17, 2012, sent a shock wave through industrial circles. Together with Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd. Honda had established the world’s first system to extract rare earth elements from used automobile components in a mass production process. The announcement also reported that the company would begin extracting rare earth elements from used nickel-hydrogen batteries from Honda hybrid vehicles starting late April.
Rare earth elements (rare earths) are a set of 17 chemical elements including lanthanum, cerium, and neodymium. Rare metals refer to these 17 elements along with 30 others including lithium, nickel, cobalt, and platinum for a total of 47 elements.
Rare metals and rare earths are used in a vast range of modern technology products, including automobiles, cell phones, and personal computers. Being such critical resources, they are the lifeline of industry. Japan produces almost no rare earths or rare metals, so the country is dependent on imports for most of these resources. Hopes have been high over the development of alternatives and recycling technologies. But until now, common sense has concluded that the recycling of rare earths, while not technically impossible, is not cost effective given the work required to recover just a small quantity.
This all changed with the sudden news that Honda and Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. had succeeded in making rare earths recycling commercially feasible.
The new recycling process uses IMA batteries (nickelhydrogen batteries) from Honda hybrids. Honda began recycling used IMA batteries in 1999, when it sold its first hybrid vehicle. It collected the batteries through its own voluntary recovery system and recycled them into stainless steel. Until recently, the rare earths were left in the stainless steel without separation, but they can now be separated out and recycled. The development of this recycling process at Honda was led by Senior Engineer Yasuhide Maki of the Service Parts Supply Division, Customer Service Operations. When Maki began working on this project, many inside the company doubted he
would succeed. “Until very recently, there was no focus at all on the recycling of rare earths,” said Maki. “That is because it was cheaper to import from producing countries than to make the investments in recycling. Even inside Honda, most people thought commercial-ization would be difficult because of the economics.” Despite this skepticism,Maki had faith in the project. Past work experience had prepared him well for the task at hand.
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