Heavy and light rare earth elements (REEs) are critical to clean energy technologies, and thus the environmental impacts from their production are increasingly scrutinized. Most previous LCAs of REE production focus on sites producing light REEs. This research addresses this gap by collecting primary data from sites producing heavy rare earth oxides (HREOs) from ion-adsorption clays, conducting an LCA, and providing open-source life cycle inventory (LCI) datasets of HREO production for the LCA community.
This study conducts a LCA based on acquired primary data from four mining sites in Jiangxi Province, China. The functional unit is 1 kg of mixed HREOs of 90% purity from ion-adsorption clays using the technology of in situ leaching. Previous studies have used the Ecoinvent database, relying mostly on European or global life cycle inventories (LCIs). Here, the Chinese Life Cycle Database provided China-specific reference life cycle inventories (LCIs) for all inputs and processes with the exception of electricity generation LCIs used in a scenario analysis, which were provided by Ecoinvent 3. Twelve impact categories were examined using Impact 2002+, USEtox 2.01, and IPCC methods. Results are provided as a bounded range, reflecting low and high estimates based on collected primary data.
Results and discussion
Results show 1 kg of mixed HREOs emit 258–408 kg CO2e, and consume 270–443 MJ primary energy. These values fall within the range of previous LCAs that examined both bastnaesite/monazite deposits and ion-adsorption clays using literature values. Other impact categories considered are not similar across studies, however. Differences are due to variability in resource type and quality, technology, and modeling choices, such as reference LCI sources. Mining and extraction contribute most to impacts due to large quantities of chemicals for leaching and precipitation of REOs, and electricity consumption. Among chemicals, ammonium sulfate is the largest contributor to many impact categories. When China’s electricity grid mix change over time is included, environmental impacts for the whole production process can change up to 12%.
The primary contributions of this study are the collection and publication of primary data from mining companies in Jiangxi Province, China; the provision of open-source LCI datasets for mixed HREOs from ion-adsorption clays; and a comparison of results between this study and previously published studies. While the scope of this study concludes at the production of mixed HREO, which is a limitation, it provides a foundation for development of LCIs for refined heavy REEs.
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The companies that provided the primary data on extraction did not provide the specific composition of the REOs produced at their sites. This information was considered too sensitive and could possibly reveal the identity of the cooperating companies.
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We would like to extend particular thanks to the participating companies and their employees who provided data for this work, contingent on their anonymity.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CBET-1337095.
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Deng, H., Kendall, A. Life cycle assessment with primary data on heavy rare earth oxides from ion-adsorption clays. Int J Life Cycle Assess 24, 1643–1652 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01582-1
- Heavy rare earth elements
- Life cycle inventory