Rare-earth recovery from magnet scrap is being scaled up – Chemical Engineering

| By Mary Page Bailey

Rare-earth materials are a crucial part of high-performance magnets in many electronic devices. Right now, only about 5% of these magnets are recycled, but tapping into end-of-life electronics is a promising and more sustainable source for rare-earth materials, the vast majority of which are currently mined in China.

A new pilot plant for recycling rare-earth magnets was recently launched by the University of Birmingham’s (U.K.; www.burmingham.ac.uk) Magnetic Materials Group. The plant processes magnets from a variety of end-of-life electronics waste to recover the neodymium, iron and boron they contain, and reform the materials back into commercial-grade magnetic materials. The pilot plant is operating a patented process based on hydrogen decrepitation, called Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap (HPMS), developed at the University of Birmingham. In the process, hydrogen gas is used to break down the magnets into a high-purity NdFeB alloy powder, which is de-magnetized so that it can be further refined and passed to downstream pressing and sintering processes that form the reclaimed materials into new magnets. According to the researchers, this process requires 88% less energy than magnet manufacturing processes using “virgin” materials.

Currently, the pilot facility employs a 1,200-L pressure vessel to process up to 100 kg/d of magnet materials from wind turbines, electric motors, speakers, hard drives and more. Following the successful operation of this pilot plant, plans are underway to scale up the HPMS process for the U.K.’s first full-scale rare-earth recycling and remanufacturing facility, to be completed in 2023 at the Tyseley Energy Park. The HPMS process has been exclusively licensed to HyProMag Ltd., which is also developing a chemical-recycling process for magnet waste to complement HPMS at the new plant. The intent of the new plant will be to produce recycled alloy powders that can be used in any part of the rare-earth value chain.

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