A new facility at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom will be recycling rare earth materials used in high-performance magnets for electronic devices. Launched with support from the EU-funded SUSMAGPRO project, the pilot plant represents an important step towards the commercialisation of rare earth magnet recycling technology in Europe. Rare earth magnets made of neodymium, iron and boron (NdFeB magnets) are crucial components of wind turbines and electric vehicles, as well as devices ranging from hard disk drives and speakers to magnetic resonance imaging scanners. However, despite the importance of these strong permanent magnets for many European industries, the EU currently only mines less than 10 % of the rare earth metals needed for their production. There is a good reason for this. Mining rare earth materials causes significant harm to the environment. Nevertheless, the fact remains that we need far more NdFeB magnets than are manufactured at present.
Reclaiming valuable rare earth materials
The pilot plant offers a solution to this problem through a complete remanufacturing process. It will reclaim the valuable NdFeB contained in magnets taken from end-of-life electric motors, electronic waste and components, and reform it back into commercial-grade magnetic materials. “This pilot plant paves the way for the UK to take a leading role in high performance magnet recycling,” states Prof. Allan Walton of SUSMAGPRO project partner University of Birmingham in a news item posted on the university’s website. “Alongside the technologies and equipment, we have developed, is a wealth of industry and research expertise. These partnerships form a solid foundation for this new industry to succeed.” Prof. Walton further highlights the pilot plant’s contribution to the industry: “It is vital to develop processes to ensure a sustainable supply of these materials and reduce dependency on virgin mined metals. As less than five per cent of end-of-life magnets are currently recycled, this is a key process that can begin to address the global shortfall in magnet manufacture.” The recycling facility will process scrap from hard drives, speakers, wind turbines, electric motors and a wide variety of other sources. The plant uses a patented process called Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap (HPMS), developed by the university. HPMS employs hydrogen to release and break down the used magnets into an alloy powder for remanufacture. A 1 200-litre pressure vessel has the capacity to process up to 100 kg of magnets a day. As reported in the news item, “the resulting powder is de-magnetised during this process, so can then be refined further before going through a pressing and sintering process, in which the reclaimed materials are compacted and heated to form new magnets.” This consumes 88 % less energy to create magnets than manufacturing them from original sources. Launched in 2019, SUSMAGPRO (Sustainable Recovery, Reprocessing and Reuse of Rare-Earth Magnets in a Circular Economy (SUSMAGPRO)) aims to develop a recycling supply chain for NdFeB magnets in Europe. It is one of the largest magnet projects on the continent. For more information, please see: SUSMAGPRO project website
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