The University of Birmingham, UK, has been awarded €4 million to set up a pilot facility to reclaim rare earth metals from scrap as part of the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project SUSMAGPRO (Sustainable Recovery, Reprocessing and Reuse of Rare-Earth Magnets in a Circular Economy). The facility will focus on recycling magnets made of neodymium, boron and iron, which are found in hard disk drives, household appliances, electric vehicles and wind turbine generators, and are increasingly important in the transition to a green, low carbon economy.
In the last thirty years, the use of rare earth magnets has increased exponentially, and demand is expected to rise to the tens of thousands of tonnes by 2030. China currently produces around 90% of the world’s rare earth metals, and currently less than 1% are recycled. Additionally, there has been significant volatility in the price of rare earth metals in recent years; recycling the magnets is expected to help protect the supply chain for Europe’s manufacturing base.
The grant aims to fund the development of a complete European supply chain capable of producing 20 tonnes of recycled magnets a year that would otherwise go to landfill. A robotic sorting line will locate and concentrate the rare earth magnets from scrap at Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham, recycling facilities will extract the metal alloy powders, and these will be used to manufacture magnets in plants in the UK, Germany and Slovenia.
The process for extracting the materials was reportedly developed by a team of researchers at the University of Birmingham. Previous methods of extracting rare earth metals required disassembly and removal of the magnet; the new process uses hydrogen to break down magnetic metal alloys into a powder, which is then easily separated from the remaining components, thereby saving time, labour and money. The approach is said to also allow the recycling unit to process multiple items at the same time.
Professor Allan Walton, from the School of Metallurgy and Materials at the University of Birmingham, one of the inventors of the process, stated, “Rare earth magnets are used in practically every application that uses electricity to produce motion, and underpin industries that are worth more than £1 trillion worldwide. However, both the price and supply have fluctuated considerably over recent years. This means there is considerable opportunity for cost-efficient technologies, which make recycling viable in the long-term.”
Recent studies are reported to have indicated that magnet recycling could emulate the stainless-steel market, where 25% of demand is met by secondary material.