University of Birmingham pilots rare earth metal recycling facility

The University of Birmingham has been awarded £4m to set up a pilot facility to recycle rare earth metals from scrap.

The pilot facility, based at Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham, will focus on recycling magnets made from neodymium, boron and iron – metals often found in hard disk drives, household appliances, and electric vehicles.

The project forms part of the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project SUSMAGPRO (Sustainable Recovery, Reprocessing and Reuse of Rare-Earth Magnets in a Circular Economy).

Professor Allan Walton, from the School of Metallurgy and Materials at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘Rare earth magnets are used in practically every application that uses electricity to produce motion, and underpin industries that are worth more than £1trn 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.’

The use of rare earth metals has increased significantly over the past three decades due to the advent of computers and household appliances, with demand expected to rise to tens of thousands of tonnes by 2030.

While China produces 80% of the world’s rare earth metals, currently less than 1% of them are recycled, offering the opportunity for much of them to be reused.

The SUSMAGPRO project aims to develop a complete supply chain capable of producing 20 tonnes of recycled magnets a year, protecting Europe’s manufacturing base.

As part of the project, a robotic sorting line in Sweden will retrieve and concentrate the rare earth magnets from scrap.

The magnets will then be sent to recycling facilities in the UK, Germany and Sweden to extract powders from the metal alloys.

These metal alloy powders will be used to manufacture recycled magnets in plants in the UK, Germany, Denmark and Slovenia.

The pilot facility will make use of a new process designed by University of Birmingham researchers, which breaks down the metal alloys by inserting hydrogen into magnets at low pressure.

This causes the magnets to break down, allowing the demagnetised annoy to be extracted, and allows recycling units to process multiple items at the same time.

This will save time, labour and money on previous methods of extracting rare earth metals, which involved disassembling and removing the magnets individually.

It is hoped the SUSMAGPRO project could increase magnet recycling to levels seen in the stainless steel market, where recycled material meets 25% of total demand.

The project may also help stem the rising tide of e-waste, which a recent study said must become a greater part of the world’s circular economy.

Photo Credit – Alex Proimos


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