Rare earth magnets are becoming increasingly important for the transition to a low-carbon world. They can be found in almost every appliance that uses electricity to generate motion, such as electric vehicles (EVs). While they have several valuable use cases in green technologies, less than one percent of them are recycled. This will become problematic as more and more of these magnets are used in emerging applications.
Nevertheless, a £2.6 million project involving Birmingham University and Bentley Motors hopes to solve this. Known as ‘RaRE’ (Rare-earth Recycling for E-machines), the project includes four other partners who will build the UK’s first end-to-end supply chain of recycled rare earth magnets.
Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap
The three-year project will build on technology developed by professors Allan Walton and Emeritus Rex Harris of Birmingham University’s Magnetic Materials Group: Britain’s only research group focused specifically on the recycling of rare earth magnetic materials.
The technology is known as HPMS (Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap). It extracts rare earth metals from electronics waste by breaking them down into a powder that can be separated from remaining components. It’s a patented technology belonging to the University of Birmingham Enterprise and licensed to HyProMag, a company set up by the project’s Birmingham researchers and the recipient of investments from Mkango Resources, which will fully fund HyProMag’s contribution to the RaRE project.
A group of graphics that represent the concept of sustainable electric vehicle manufacturing
Image credit: Bigstock
The RaRE project will initially look at developing a process to recycle magnets that have been extracted from computer hard drives to make rare earth magnets for use in ancillary motors. HyProMag will be responsible for scaling up the recycling techniques developed at the university.
Sustainable & Recyclable Electric Motors
Said Nick Mann, HyProMag’s operations general manager: “HyProMag’s recycling technologies allow us to produce NdFeB [neodymium-iron-boron] magnets with a much lower embedded carbon cost than using virgin supply and with independence from Chinese supply and we are working closely with our major shareholder Mkango Resources to further grow the business”.
Concerns surrounding security and the environmental footprint of rare earth supply chains have long since been dwarfed by automakers’ concerns about attaining enough viable batteries to successfully enable the shift from fossil fuels to all-electric. However, rare earth metals are a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to the uptake of EVs.
If the project is a success, it could represent a major leap on the path to develop a robust supply chain that will increase growth in the electric vehicle sector and other clean technologies, potentially leading to electric motors that are both sustainable and recyclable by 2026.
The project has been part-funded by the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles and will be delivered in partnership with Innovate UK.