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REE4EU: integrated high temperature electrolysis (HTE) and Ion Liquid Extraction (ILE) for a strong and independent European Rare Earth Elements Supply Chain

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - REE4EU (REE4EU: integrated high temperature electrolysis (HTE) and Ion Liquid Extraction (ILE) for a strong and independent European Rare Earth Elements Supply Chain)

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2019-09-30

Rare earth elements (REE) are targeted as a crucial component of “green” technology applications. Currently, it is forecasted an increasing demand of REE, mainly for NdFeB-permanent magnets used in highly effective motors for electric vehicles and wind turbines' generators. The REE supply is at risk due to the unpredictable trading policies of China, who owns and exploits the main world reserves.

The REE4EU project has developed, validated and demonstrated in 2 industrially relevant pilots an innovative closed-loop permanent magnet recycling process using secondary REE-resources available in Europe. Moreover, the integrated solution was replicated using other RE-containing wastes, i.e. spent NiMH batteries.

The results obtained in the project have opened-up the possibility of securing an important value chain in Europe, and given a promising opportunity for a REE recycling business in Europe.
During the first period, the engineering teams (IDENER and A3i-Inovertis), together with partners (SINTEF, UPS, Tecnalia), as well as the industrial partners responsible for the pilots (Elkem and LCM), established the corresponding conceptual engineering design for the process. Moreover, since the project involves the full value chain to prove technical and economic viability of this technology for recycling magnetic waste, a Value Chains Stakeholders Analysis Report was realized by PNO. The report is available at the project website.

During the second period of the project, the consortium finalised the engineering work related to the main pilot, which includes the basic and detail engineering of the ionic liquid extraction (ILE) and high temperature electrolysis (HTE) pilot units, with enough flexibility to be able to accommodate different RE-containing wastes. After the tender and purchasing phase of the equipment, the pilot was built up within dedicated facilities for RE alloy (REA) production at Elkem site. The pilot tests using permanent magnet swarf (PMS, in-process waste from the permanent magnet production from VAC) and spent permanent magnets (SPM) from STENA were carried out successfully.

On the other hand, pilot tests were carried out in the existing pilot unit at LCM using PMS-waste pre-treated by a pure hydrometallurgical method.

The REA obtained were used to manufacture new permanent magnets at VAC, which showed the same properties as magnets obtained from virgin material. In this way, the REE4EU project has demonstrated a closed-loop recycling process for permanent magnets at pilot scale, using RE-containing wastes available in Europe.

Moreover, a market analysis was carried out (available at the website of the project), where the prospective European market of secondary RE elements contained in selected EoL products that have the potential to become viable feedstocks for RE recovery at industrial scale has been studied.

During the last period of the project, the flexibility of the REE4EU pilot plant towards different RE-containing waste streams was demonstrated in the replication activities related to the validation of the REE4EU's technology for nickel metal hydride battery waste. Then, the ILE and HTE pilot units were slightly adapted to accommodate the needs of this specific waste material. Moreover, a pure HM upgrading process was demonstrated at pilot scale by SNAM.

Moreover, A3-iInovertis and PNO have finalised the economic and environmental assessment as well as the business plan. First results were presented to relevant invited stakeholders in a workshop that was held in Brussels 24th April 2019. The response from the audience (Apple Inc, Urban Mining Company, Valeo, Toyota Motor Europe, Eurometaux, REEtec, European Recycling Platform, EIT Raw Materials, among others) was very positive. The stakeholders think that the REE4EU project presented a smart and innovative concept and that the technology has a great potential to be introduced in the market in the near future.

From an environmental point of view, the REE4EU technology leads to a reduction of the climate change impact by ca. 50% and to a reduction of the primary energy consumption by ca. 35%. From an economical point of view, and considering a proper plant size and optimized design, or considering just a small increase of the current primary RE market price, the REE4EU solution would lead to a RE master alloy production cost lower than that from the current scenario.

More details on the economic evaluation and environmental footprint of the REE4EU technology can be found on the presentations shown at the REE4EU Exploitation Workshop, available at the website of the project.

The developed preliminary business plan, including cost assessment and return on investment for potential investors according to different market scenarios, constitutes a stand-alone confidential document that will be used in the exploitation activities planned after
The REE4EU technology has been successfully demonstrated at pilot scale. The consortium has demonstrated a closed-loop permanent magnet recycling process, as new products (permanent magnets) have been obtained from secondary resources.
This achievement constitutes a break-through, as nobody has been able to demonstrate the whole permanent magnet value chain using RE-containing waste material at this scale before. Thus, the opportunity of using RE-abundant secondary resources available in Europe as a potential source of RE-metals and alloy suppliers to be used in new products is clearly presented to relevant stakeholders.

This may open-up a clear investment opportunity to relevant industry stakeholders, when presenting the final market data and business cases for a new European secondary REA production sector, creating new jobs, increasing Europe’s independence from imports, and providing valuable raw materials for fast-growing European green technology industries. By accomplishing this, the project is not only fostering competitiveness, but resource efficiency and environmental benefits as well.

An extensive social analysis was carried out, where the major impacts on workers, local communities, environment and value chain actors have been identified for the REE4EU recycling plant in Europe compared to the conventional scenario for the current waste practices (PMS and SPM) as well as primary RE production in China. The targets, impact indicators and methodologies were based on the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) as well as socio-economic impact analysis (SEA) and social assessments already performed in the field of RE industry.

The results of the SEA indicate that out of the 37 impact indicators assessed, 31 are in favour of the implementation of a recycling plant in Europe. Moreover, regarding the worker category, a risk and hazards analysis has also been conducted by Inovertis and has shown that the number, probability and gravity of occupational risks and accidents were weaker in the case of the implementation of a recycling process in Europe.
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REE4EU closed-loop permanent magnet recycling at pilot scale
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REE4EU permanent magnet production