Motoring into REE Magnet Recycling

Very few people would dispute the value of precious metals such as gold and palladium. Why then, when it comes to the recovery of such critical materials, is performance insufficient?

Recycling Collection & Transport Markets & Policy
Better recycling of precious resources is 'critical'

Alan Harvey, business development manager and WEEE specialist at UNTHA UK explains why while the recycling of critical materials is becoming more commonplace, much more needs to be done...

Very few people would dispute the value of precious metals such as gold and palladium. Why then, when it comes to the recovery of such critical materials, is performance insufficient?

Globally WEEE is the fastest growing waste stream, but for too long the dismissive mind-set of WEEE being 'someone else's problem' has overridden the tendency to reuse, repair, recycle and recover electrical equipment and its component parts. Many EU Member States ought to take greater responsibility domestically for the 'waste' they produce.

The carbon impact of WEEE being shipped to the other side of the world for recycling is insane. Plus, in taking this route, we fail to harness the value of increasingly scarce resources that we should be protecting.

Additionally, once WEEE has been exported from the EU, if primitive recycling methods are adopted, as is often the case, the health and environmental impact can be devastating in the receiving country.

The encouraging sign is that there are many responsible – and also incredibly profitable – organisations, sitting up and tackling the complex area of critical material recycling. A number of facilities in Germany, for example, bear greater resemblance to sophisticated manufacturing plants, than traditional waste centres. They are clean, efficient and incredibly well designed, with intuitive technology complementing the work of skilled operatives.

In many countries around the world organisations are starting to pay more attention to the waste hierarchy, and are prioritising the reuse and repair of electrical equipment, so it does not become waste. When this is unfeasible, careful pre-treatment of WEEE enables hazardous materials to be removed, so that controlled hand-dismantling can take place and the greatest level of critical materials be salvaged.

However, mechanical processing is also an option. WEEE can be shredded to liberate the materials and produce a homogenous fraction, which can then be thoroughly sorted using advanced separation equipment. And the result? Segregated material streams yield significant revenue, resources are preserved, and 'waste' is handled responsibly.

Ongoing debate surrounding the circular economy can no doubt take some credit for this progress. There is a growing acknowledgement that society cannot afford to keep losing critical materials, and, there is wealth in waste.

Unfortunately, as in many countries, the UK has historically taken a short term view, opting for the opportunity to make a small amount of money fast, rather than investing to secure larger revenues over the longer term.

But this is changing. In July, the European Commission began talking more about the economic benefit that closed loop business models can bring. The more people that acknowledge the increasing value of critical materials and the financial advantages that resource security achieves, the greater the progress we should see.

Hybrid drive vehicles such as the Toyota Prius will be reaching end-of-life in increasing quantities. With each motor containing as much a 1kg of rare earths they represent a big opportunity for recyclers

Earths and the U.S. Economy, when it comes to little-known resources, rare earths are probably the world's most important.

As an example, the report cited Neodymium (Nd), which is used to create permanent magnets that are found in nearly all modern vehicles, as well as aircraft, wind turbines and hand tools amongst a plethora of other high-tech machinery. It is also an important component in a wide variety of electronic equipment such as computer discs, headphones and lasers. While the report is largely focused on the need for the U.S. to develop its own sources of rare earths from virgin materials, and streamline the permitting process for new mines, it concludes that "depending upon China for these critical components puts the American economy in peril".

But it's not just the U.S. economy at risk from rare earth shortages. Japan and Korea have major electronics and automotive industries, as does Europe. And for the automotive industry in particular, its drive to produce increasingly fuel efficient vehicles with the use of lightweight components and electric motor hybrid drive systems is threatened.

Indeed, a recent survey carried out by Freiburg, Germany based European sustainable future research and consultancy organisation, the Oeko-Institut, found that in 2012 European companies produced up to two million electric motors with permanent magnets, containing around 30% REEs, for use in industry. Around half of those were produced in Germany and half of those also used in Germany – the remaining 50% were exported either as magnets or as part of machines and equipment.

Oeko-Institut's study, Analysis of rare earths: permanent magnets used in industry in Baden-Wuerttemberg, included a survey of several hundred industrial companies in Baden- Wuerttemberg. It was conducted on behalf of the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector.

MOTOR-VATION TO RECYCLE

According to the report, about 20% of total rare earth production is currently used to produce high performance magnets, particularly those used in motors. The institute found that the use of electric motors is – and above all will be in the future – rapidly expanding in vehicles, in gearless wind turbines and, to a substantial extent, in electric motors and generators for industry. Such applications are dominated by neodymium iron boron magnets -made from an alloy of neodymium, iron and boron and dysprosium, the most critical rare earth element.

With the expected substantial growth in demand for these products, the report found that there is an urgent need to move to a more circular approach to the lifecycle of rare earth magnets. Currently there is insufficient collection and recycling of rare earths from the increasing stock of electric motors with permanent magnets that are used in industry.

As a result, after a maximum service life of around 30 years, the permanent magnets from such motors end up in the steel or copper scrap heap, or even being discarded in the household waste. Speaking to WMW, Dr. Matthias Buchert, the project leader and head of the Infrastructure & Enterprises Division at Oeko-Institut, explains that in Germany alone industry is missing out on approximately 35 to 40 tonnes of neodymium iron bore magnets – a quantity that is set to increase significantly up to 2025/2030.

"The situation is that we need a technical solution for the recycling of rare earth magnets. That's one side of the problem. On the other side we need an efficient collection system to feed such a solution," he says.

"Currently if you collect a lot of magnets you are looking for a destination for them. If you're an entrepreneur and you invest in a recycling plant then you are looking for material for it. For the future, collection systems are the most critical point," continues Buchert.

But when it comes to the actual recycling of individual materials from these magnets, he is certain that it is technically feasible, and cites the recently completed MORE project. Begun in 2011, it was a consortium of eight partners from industry and research and led by Siemens. Its aim was to develop solutions for recycling electric motors, focusing on permanent magnets.

Within the three year project, of which Oeko-Institut was a partner, various aspects of separating the magnets from the motor were investigated, as well as quality control and different end uses for the recycled products. It looked at reuse of the materials, recycling material back into new magnets, and also at the leaching of the magnets to produce neodymium oxides and dysprosium oxides in very high purity ready to be used by industry.

"The advantage of recycling material directly is that in nature you have many rare earth elements together, so the separation processes are very challenging," explains Buchert. "It means a lot of costs and a lot of chemicals to separate all the rare earth elements. In the case of recycling magnets you have a pretty interesting material with about 30% rare earths – and exactly the right rare earths."

Ipte, con porissit. Nu etem quis, nos CHICKEN AND EGG

There are currently no commercial recyclers that target REE magnets because there is no recycling plant to which it can sell them. On the other hand, Buchert says that a recycling plant would require at least 100 tonnes of material per year to operate effectively.

However, according Buchert there are currently some electronics recyclers stockpiling magnets from electronics, or specialist equipment such as MRI scanners, as are some motor manufacturers. "They are waiting for a customer that is interested to take the material," he says.

But what comes first, the recycling infrastructure, or a proper system to collect the materials for recycling? One solution to this chicken and egg situation could be to get one magnet recycling plant off the ground by supplementing it with scrap from the magnet manufacturing plants.

"We have some magnet producers in Europe and they produce magnets, but also scrap," says Buchert. "It's interesting material which is currently shipped to China. This material could be the first input material for such a recycling plant in Europe. And then there would be a customer for the recycling companies that separate the magnets – then there would be an incentive not to shred them."

In terms of developing an economically viable collection system for rare earth magnets, he adds that the focus should be on applications in which the size of the magnets are reasonably large. For example very small magnets in smartphones should not be the starting point as separating the device.

Instead, he sees a more appropriate target as being products such as electric bicycles or domestic water pumps, as well as higher end domestic appliances such as washing machines. For applications where the magnet is 50g plus a collection system makes sense - the magnets found in hybrid vehicles are around 1 kg.

EDUCATING THE INDUSTRY

When it comes to recovering the REE containing magnets from motors, the metals recycling industry has a big, and one day potentially lucrative, role to play.

"We think that the motors should be dismantled carefully," says Buchert. "There are a couple of other interesting materials embedded in the motor. But we need also an information system for the recyclers. For example, there is no indication on the motor as to whether it is a neodymium iron boren magnet or if it is a samarium cobalt magnet - or a ferrite magnet."

"Simple information, and of course information building among the recyclers not to shred the motors. It's brittle material and when it's shredded the magnets end up in the steel plants, and the material is lost. From my perspective, at least for applications with larger magnets, 50-200g plus, it is wise to separate it and not to shred it. Maybe for electronics other approaches could make sense," he adds.

CONCLUSIONS

Over the past decades the recycling industry in Europe has continuously evolved. Materials once considered unrecyclable have gone from waste stream to revenue stream. As the type of products being processed by the recycling industry change, along with the demand for raw materials, that evolution will continue.

Given the growing demand for the REEs used in high performance motors, as well as the political and economic factors governing their availability and price, it does not seem credible that they will continue to go unrecycled. Automotive recyclers today jump on catalytic converters as a high value item. It's easy to imagine that rare earth magnets could become equally regarded - if somewhat harder to get at.

"Electric motors with rare earth permanent magnets are an important part of industry in Baden-Wuerttemberg," says Franz Untersteller, Minister for the Environment, Climate Protection and Energy in Baden-Wuerttemberg. "As a result, skilled recovery of the rare earths in the electric motors used in industry is urgently necessary." As with much of the progress seen in the recycling industry, don't be surprised to see Germany lead the way with rare earth magnets. And equally don't be surprised if it soon catches on elsewhere - it's surely just a matter of time. The question is, how much time?

Ben Messenger in managing editor of WMW This article is on-line. Please visit www.waste-management-world.com