University of Birmingham awarded €4.7m for rare earth metals recycling plant


Increasing demand for electronics has seen rare earth metal demand soar

Pilot facility designed to recycle rare earth metal magnets from hard disk drives, household appliances, electric vehicles, and wind turbines

The University of Birmingham has been awarded almost €4.7m in EU funding to develop a pilot facility capable of reclaiming rare earth metals from electronic devices with a view to developing a European supply chain for recycled magnets, it announced yesterday.

Located at Tyseley Energy Park, the facility will focus on recycling magnets made from neodymium, boron, and iron which are often found in a raft of components and machines such as hard disk drives, household appliances, electric vehicles, and wind turbines, the University said.

Use of these rare earth metals has increased exponentially in the last 30 years, with demand expected to rise to tens of thousands of tonnes by 2030 thanks to rising demand for consumer electronics and clean technologies.

China produces around 80 per cent of the world’s rare earth metals, but at present less than just one per cent of is recycled, according to the University. Meanwhile, there has been significant volatility in the price of these metals in recent years, creating financial and operational risks for some of the world’s largest technology brands.

It is therefore envisaged that recycling the magnets could help protect the supply chain for Europe’s manufacturing base, and that a new recycling process developed by the University of Birmingham could provide a key plank for a fledgling new rare earth metal recycling supply chain.

Tyseley pilot plant will utilise a robotic sorting line to locate and concentrate the rare earth magnets from scrap, before using hydrogen to break down magnetic metal alloys into a powder. The powder is then separated from the remaining components in a recycling process designed to save time, labour and money, the University explained.

Professor Allan Walton, one of the inventors of the process from the University’s School of Metallurgy and Materials, said magnet recycling could potentially emulate the stainless steel market, where a quarter of demand is now met by secondary materials.

“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,” he said. “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 pilot forms part of a wider €14m EU-funded Horizon 2020 project run by an industry-based consortium of 19 partners from across Europe operating under the acronym SUSMAGPRO, which stands for Sustainable Recovery, Reprocessing and Reuse of Rare-Earth Magnets in a Circular Economy.

The grant is aimed at funding the development of a complete European supply chain including a robotic sorting line in Sweden and production facilities in the UK, Germany, and Sweden. The complete supply chain should be capable of producing 20 tonnes of recycled magnets each year that would otherwise go to landfill. 

The University of Birmingham’s €4.7m portion of the funding will see it build a scaled pilot system at Tyseley for hydrogen processing of magnet scrap from a range of sources, from small domestic appliances to larger industrial machinery, up to the size of wind turbines.

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