Recycling of rare earth magnets gained attention in late 2023. British startup HyProMag's new technology was one of the first to be backed by the Mineral Security Partnership, a 14-country US-led organization focused on sustainable supplies of critical minerals. .

However, this industry is still new.

“Right now, most magnets are going to landfills,” Mark Jensen, CEO of U.S. battery and rare earth recycling company Reelement, told FastMarket.

US recycling company REEcycle estimates that less than 1% of used magnets are recycled each year.

“One of the reasons is that magnets embedded in assemblies are very difficult to recycle in a cost- and energy-efficient manner,” Will Dawes, CEO of HyProMag, told Fastmarkets.

Rare earth magnets (raw materials) for recycling are typically sourced from used products of various sizes, from approximately 1 tonne magnets in wind turbines, to 1 kg magnets in electric motors, to much smaller magnets in household appliances. will be done.

Chips, or offcuts from magnet manufacturing, are another source of raw material for the emerging industry, and are praised for being easy to work with because they don't need to be broken down.

Although most recycling technologies are proprietary, according to professional publications, recycling technologies can be divided into four categories:

  • Pyrometallurgy (including heating and smelting)
  • Hydrometallurgy (including special liquids such as acids and other solvents)
  • Direct recycling (disassembly and reuse)
  • hybrid process

“Currently, hydraulic and pyrometallurgical processes are the most common,” Hyeonu Do of South Korean battery recycler Sebit told Fast Market. Cevit is considering entering the rare earth recycling field.

power of high temperature

“Pyrometallurgy uses more energy than hydrometallurgy, so if the raw materials are not properly managed, there can be higher levels of impurities in the final product,” Do said. Controlling raw materials means separating raw materials by magnet type, he added.

The pyrometallurgical process is used by Japan's Nissan Motor Co. and Hitachi, among others, the companies previously announced.

Nissan recycles rare earths from motors that do not meet production standards. Through several steps such as manual disassembly and magnet removal, rare earth elements are recovered from the molten slag during the pyrometallurgical process. As of this article's publication, the company had not responded to additional questions.

Hitachi Group used pyrometallurgy technology to extract rare earth magnets from used hard disk drives, the company told Fast Market. However, it has also used traditional techniques from “other magnet manufacturers” to extract rare earth materials, which is hydrometallurgy.

Some companies use heating or sintering techniques rather than smelting.

Noveon Magnetic, an American sintered neodymium iron boron (NdFeB) magnet manufacturer, describes its recycling process as “powder metallurgy”-based, which involves heating. The company told Fastmarket that it expects its 2,000 tonnes of magnet production in 2025 to be made entirely from post-consumer recycled materials.

Use various liquids

Hydrometallurgical technology also varies from company to company, but there are some common characteristics.

“Hydrometallurgy requires preparing materials and using powdered type raw materials for faster reactions. Similarly, granulated sugar takes less time to dissolve in a cup of tea compared to sugar cubes. ” said Do.

Established recycling companies that use proprietary hydrometallurgical methods include Japan's Shin-Etsu Chemical.

Shin-Etsu Chemical has been recycling rare earth magnets at its plants in Japan since 2008 and at its plants in Vietnam since 2013, a company spokesperson told Fast Market, but has not disclosed production and recycling capacity numbers. refused. During the recycling process, Shin-Etsu Chemical uses acids and other solvents as part of the filtration process.

ionic liquid

British startup IonicTech uses liquid-liquid extraction technology to chemically separate rare earth elements from crushed magnets and chips, using liquid salts and ligands as extractants. A ligand is an ion or molecule that binds to a central metal ion or atom.

Ioniq's demonstration plant in Belfast has been operational since January 2024 and is targeted to produce 10 tonnes of isolated rare earth oxides per year, the company said. Ionic partnered with British manufacturer Less Common Metals to process the oxide into metal and magnetic alloys.

“The magnetic material is demagnetized in an oven, crushed, milled and then digested, allowing us to separate rare earths from base metals, iron and boron,” Ionic CEO Tim Harrison told Fastmarkets.

“The rare earth-enriched stream is then fed into a solvent extraction circuit where an ionic liquid is used to separate the rare earths into their elemental forms,” ​​Harrison said.

As a result, Ionic can produce oxides of the light rare earths neodymium and praseodymium, as well as the heavy rare earths dysprosium, terbium, gadolinium and holmium, with purity greater than 99.5%, Harrison said.

Chromatographic approach

Another hydrometallurgical recycler, Reelement of the United States, uses continuous chromatography. The method has been applied in the sugar industry to separate glucose and fructose, but has not been used elsewhere to recycle rare earths, said CEO Mark Jensen. told Fast Market.

After autolysis and leaching, the liquid mixture containing rare earth elements is subjected to a continuous chromatography process to separate the elements, Jensen said.

ReElement's chromatography process introduces a rare earth mixture into a column filled with a special resin, washes it with a solution to separate the rare earth elements in layers, and later processes them into high-purity oxides, which the company says is fast. told the market.

Reelement's rare earth recycling facility in the US is planned to be operational in late 2024, with a production capacity of 1,000 tonnes of oxides per year, Jensen told FastMarket. ReElement announced in March that it had a sales agreement to supply refined rare earth oxides to local junior manufacturer USA Rare Earths.

Mixing method

French rare earth refiner Calester plans to commission the construction of a recycling plant in France by the first quarter of 2026 as part of the Calemag project, the company told Fastmarket.

Carester CEO Frédéric Carencotte's said that after the permanent magnets are dismantled, they are first treated mechanically, then in a combination of pyrohydro processes, followed by solvent extraction to separate the rare earths.

Caremag plans to produce rare earth oxides (neodymium, praseodymium, terbium, dysprosium) from recycled magnets and heavy rare earth mine concentrates in Lac, France, ultimately recycling 2,000 tonnes of rare earth magnets per year and will increase to process 5,000 tons. of heavy rare earth concentrates.

In the industry, both hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical processes are referred to as “long loop” rather than “short loop” recycling.

Mr Carencott said both methods were complementary. He added that the long-loop method requires the efforts of metallurgists because it can accept any type of permanent magnet and yields the same oxides that are produced from mined materials.

But Karencott says the short-loop method can reproduce the same type of magnet without any additional effort by metallurgists. However, repeating the recycling loop several times can degrade the performance of permanent magnets.

Short loop or magnet to magnet recycling

The American company Orcon Recycling uses a direct recycling method for used magnets. This includes demagnetizing, dismantling, recovering and preparing rare earth magnets for reuse, company president Luis Okon told Fastmarket.

Its production is “several hundred tons of rare earth magnets per year,” Okon said, and the recycled magnets are often reused by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in similar products. Unused magnets will be supplied as recycled raw material to companies that use more resource-intensive magnet manufacturing options, he added.

“Direct recycling uses the least amount of resources to produce the final product,” Okon says.

Other “magnet-to-magnet” recycling options can result in demagnetized rare earth alloy powders, such as HyProMag’s Hydrogen Processing of Magnetic Scrap Method (HPMS) developed at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

“The pretreated scrap containing the magnet is placed in a hydrogen container, where the hydrogen reacts with the magnet inside to form an alloy powder and simultaneously demagnetizes the powder,” Dawes said.

This degaussing is key to recovering the magnets, which would otherwise be difficult to separate from their surroundings, Dawes added.

“The resulting powder can then be reformulated directly into magnets, remelted or chemically processed,” he said. He said: “The chemical processing pilot plant will be commissioned in Tyseley, Birmingham, UK in 2024, with a planned recycling capacity of at least 100 tonnes of magnets per year.”

HyProMag plans to commission another plant with a similar production capacity of 100 tons per year in Germany in 2025, followed by another plant with a production capacity of 500 tons in the United States in 2025-2026. said Dawes.

Consumers looking for ready-to-use materials for production

End consumers, including OEMs and automakers, are looking for recycling options to bring products back into the supply chain.

“OEMs are now more motivated to engage in recycling than mining,” said Ionic's Harrison. In his view, this is driven by mining optics, and recycling efforts, he says, offer better sustainability options for OEMs.

“Recycling is everyone's business. Strategic minerals like rare earths should never end up in landfills,” Dawes said.

Recyclers say automakers are interested in high-quality recycled products that can be put back into production quickly.

ReElement's Jensen said the quality of the oxide that can be returned to the automaker's supply chain is “the most important factor.” Harrison agreed, adding that “consistency of quality” is also important.

Demolition is an expensive and energy-intensive process, so HyProMag's “big solution” is a separation process that produces magnet powder, which is compatible with long-loop hydrometallurgical recycling processes and recycling processes from conventional mines. It costs less and has a lower carbon footprint by comparison, Dawes said. -Manufacture of magnets.

There is no single best recycling method

“At this time, there is no cross-industry process,” a Hitachi spokesperson told Fast Market. “We recognize that industry rules and standardization will be a challenge going forward.”

“There is room for a number of technologies to help shape the supply chain to handle raw materials with a variety of rare earth compositions,” Harrison said.

There is interest not only from end users but also from policy makers.

On November 13, the European Commission announced that it would raise its recycling target to at least 25% of the EU's annual raw material consumption, up from 15% announced in March 2023.

“Magnet recycling has the potential to meet a portion of total rare earth demand, and setting a target of 25% is a good starting point,” Harrison said.

Our team of rare earth experts and price reporters provide weekly rare earth price and market analysis. Learn more about all rare earth prices here.

Source link