China Rare Earth Mineral Cartel vs Manual Disassembly

On Sunday, the Guardian newspaper ran a story by Tom Bawden (The Observer) which updates us on how China's stinginess with Rare Earth elements - needed in high tech gadgets - is causing the price to spike.

This is good for two groups:  Recyclers who dismantle by hand (and are able to recover magnets and other board level components), and the alleged African blood metals cartels who harvest tantalum from coltan in the mountains and rain forests of Congo, using the rare earths to fund their weapons and wars.  Remember?  The decline in gorilla population is tied to electronics rare metals demand.

The shortage may be of no use at all to the big USA shredders which shred up the hard drives.  The magnets are difficult to recover - in fact they can cause jamming of the shredding gears (which are usually steel - and attractive to magnets).

As journalist Adam Minter noted in his Shanghai Scrap blog in January, removing rare earth magnets by hand disassembly actually can cut out the remelting and refining step altogether.   Hard drives are manufactured in Singapore (a city-state, once part of Malaysia, now locked within it), and Singapore hard drive manufacturers will buy back magnets and reuse them directly.

That's right, they can glue the magnet right back into a new hard drive, it if's the right model etc.   Or if it doesn't fit, there's the extra step of refining.  But that is much easier than trying to get the Europium oxide, dysprosium oxide, etc.

China is stockpiling the ores, and they are not rare - so what's the problem?   The problem is that it takes a major mining investment to develop a new pit and refinery, and no guarantee that, having sunk millions into making "less-rare" earth ores, that China won't dump its stockpile and you lose all your money.

The challenge will be to allow hand disassembly of the drives while many E-Waste advocates, at R2 and E-Stewards, object to the export of the hard drives.  I made the point that with cloud computing and NAFTA, that my data (backed up by Mozy or Dropbox) may already be on a hard drive outsided of the USA.  I made the point that I'd love to see Seagate or Western Digital start taking back hard drives, to Singapore or Malaysia, for refurbishing.

So take-back and reuse on the one hand, gorilla mining, Chinese cartels, and e-waste stewards on the other.  It's bizarre.   The explanation is that social belief systems and politics are acting in place of science and dialectic.  

It seems that too many people still believe that a significant source of data theft and hackery are in non-American recyclers, and USA shredders (and software anti-reuse corporations like Intuit, Microsoft, and Adobe) are comforted by those fears.  Despite data that says data is stolen from computers IN USE (by phishing, or theft), we are taught to be pretty concerned that the data will get stolen by Seagate or Western Digital or Corsair if the rare earth magnets are collected back for reuse and refurbishment.

So we are trying hand-disassembly of hard drives - down to the magnet - at Good Point Recycling.  We brought a team from Free Geek Rhode Island to visit us last week (and they cross-geeked with Ghana and Angola geeks, who also learned the hard drive magnet separation).

I have some rare earth magnets from hard drives clinging my Father's Day Card to the refrigerator.

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