UK university launches rare-earth metal recycling pilot project
The facility will focus on recycling magnets made of neodymium, boron and iron.
University of Birmingham

UK university launches rare-earth metal recycling pilot project

Pilot facility to reclaim rare-earth metals from scrap.

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The University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, has been awarded $4 million euros to set up a pilot facility to reclaim rare earth metals from scrap as part of the European Union-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. These magnets 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, according to a news release announcing the pilot project.

In the last 30 years, their use has increased exponentially, and demand is expected to rise to the tens of thousands of tons by 2030.

China produces around 80 percent of the world’s rare-earth metals and currently less than 1 percent is recycled, “which means it presents an exciting circular economy opportunity,” the university says. Additionally, rare earth metals have shown significant volatility in the price in recent years. Recycling the magnets will help protect the supply chain for Europe’s manufacturing base, the news release says.

The grant will fund the development of a complete European supply chain that can produce 20 tons of recycled magnets per year that would otherwise go to landfill.  

A robotic sorting line in Sweden will locate and concentrate the rare-earth magnets from scrap at Tyseley Energy Park, Birmingham. Recycling facilities in the U.K., Germany and Sweden will extract the metal alloy powders from sorted scrap, which will then be used to manufacture recycled-content magnets in plants in the U.K., Germany and Slovenia.  

The hydrogen processing of magnet scrap process was developed by University of Birmingham and “researchers will be a key aspect of the new supply chain.”

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 easily separated from the remaining components. The approach saves time, labor and month and also “allows the recycling unit to process multiple items at the same time. “

“Rare-earth magnets are used in practically every application that uses electricity to produce motion, and underpin industries that are worth more than $11 trillion [euros] worldwide,” Allan Walton, professor at the School of Metallurgy and Materials and one of the inventors of the process, says in the news release. “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 have indicated that magnet recycling could emulate the stainless steel market, where 25 percent of demand is met by secondary material.