What do you do with an old hard drive, the type that still runs inside most PCs when it reaches the end of its life?
If Allan Walton has his way, some parts may soon push your next car down the road, assuming you go electric.
The professor at the University of Birmingham is the director of the Hypromag company, which extracts and recycles neodymium magnets from used hard drives.
Neodymium is a rare earth metal – chemical elements considered essential ingredients in many of today’s indispensable technologies, from smartphones to TV screens. Neodymium is used, among other things, to create magnets that turn on the motors that drive electric vehicles.
The professor. Walton believes his company could recycle enough neodymium over the next 10 years to meet a quarter of UK demand, almost entirely imported from China.
Once electric vehicles are assembled and in operation, they are generally considered more environmentally friendly than cars with internal combustion engines. But making rare earth magnets is far from green.
Although the processes needed to refine rare earths use many of the same chemicals found in oven cleaners and cosmetics, their waste can be destructive if not properly controlled.
At a mining site, Bayan Obo in Inner Mongolia, they helped create a vast toxic lake.
Next to the mine itself there is a tail dam, a reservoir created from what is left from the separation of rare earths.
Steel and aluminum already have established recycling programs that help reduce chemical treatment.
However, rare earth minerals used in telephones, hard drives and old wind turbines are generally lost.
Four years ago at the University of Birmingham, Prof. Walton and his mentor, Prof. Rex Harris, discovered that the operation of hydrogen gas through old hard drives turns the magnets into dust which can be collected, repacked and coated to become new magnets.
The project will not only offer a greener solution to the rare earth market, but the global demand for these minerals means that a business case needs to be built.
“We lack a trick. There is no problem finding rare earths, it is turning them into a useful material, like a magnet, “says Professor Walton.
This year, Hypromag plans to announce an agreement with the British car company Bentley.
He received a 2.6 million pound grant from Innovate UK and half a million pounds of investment and further partnerships from an African junior mine, Mkango.
However, the Hypromag solution will satisfy only part of the growing demand for rare earths, which analysts say will double by 2025.
Professor Walton believes that if Britain acts now and creates a large-scale rare earth recycling industry, it could become a world leader.
The opportunity is enormous, with many emerging technologies such as 5G requiring rare earths, in addition to the growing need for consolidated technologies such as telephones, microprocessors and wind turbines.
However, the main reason why rare earths have been compared to oil is the government’s policies that will fuel the demand for electric vehicles.
After 2025, the Netherlands will not sell petrol or diesel cars. The United Kingdom and France have committed themselves to achieving this goal by 2040. This year, China is targeting 12% of the cars sold in the country to produce zero emissions.
When it comes to the production of rare earths and magnets made by them, China is the world leader.
The country faces the market because its companies can extract rare earths and transform them locally into finished products. Over 70% of rare earth products are exported from China.
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The country faces the market because it is the only place in the world with companies that can transform rare earth minerals into finished products. Over 70% of rare earth products are exported from China.
And, its established supply chain offers them unparalleled discounts.
Rare earths are part of the Made in China 2025 plan to become the world’s leading producer.
But while China exports processed products, the country’s natural resources are not rich in heavier rare earth types that are in greater demand, such as neodymium used for car magnets.
China gets much of its neodymium from Burma and the United States, says Christopher Ecclestone, Hallgarten’s mining strategist.
The Mountain Pass mine in California sells 100% of its rare earths in concentrated form to China – and is partly owned by the Chinese company Shenghe Resources, which has a 9.9% stake.
“The United States is one of the major Chinese rare earth sources and the Chinese are taking it for a song. It drives the Pentagon crazy,” he says.
What put China in control of the market is that rare earths were a byproduct of established mines, says Ian Higgins, director of Less Common Metals in the port of Ellesmere near Liverpool.
Other rare earth metals and their uses
- Neodymium: permanent magnets used in cars and wind turbines
- Erbio – fiber cables for broadband and high speed lasers
- Dysprosium – commercial lighting and also nuclear reactors
- Cerium – glass polish, catalysts and oven cleaner
- Yttrium and Terbium – weapons including laser aiming and cruise missiles
The Higgins company is one of the few manufacturers outside of China to manufacture and combine rare earth metals into alloys.
Emphasize that Chinese mines are supported by government subsidies and opaque accounting practices.
While environmental policy in China has improved, larger mines were built before they were implemented.
“There is a lot of rare earth processing that is horrible and there is also a lot of heavier rare earth black and gray market smuggling.” says Mr. Higgins.
However, he adds that the country is starting to wake up to the environmental impact of its rare earth industry.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused global assembly lines to stop. But it has also stimulated producers who use rare earths to question the global supply chain and their dependence on a single country of origin.
The crisis prompted governments and businesses to “locate resources,” according to Andrew Bloodworth, director of the British Geological Survey.
“People like me tell our government that any production concentrated in small places will be vulnerable to disruptions,” says Bloodworth.
America, the UK and Europe are looking to build rare earth supply chains outside of China.
On May 13, the legislation was submitted to US lawmakers, with the goal of providing tax breaks to the sector: $ 50 million in funding was also allocated to starter mines in the United States.
In the EU, the Horizon 2020 fund has launched an initiative to build a supply chain in several European and Nordic countries, including Great Britain.
In the UK, rare earths are an integral part of the government’s industrial strategy, according to Jeff Townsend, who this year established a lobby company to represent the interests of the sector.
“The government needs to understand and do much more than define a great vision of an industrial strategy. He has to get his hands dirty and supply the supply chain, “he says.
“Covid has knocked everyone on the side and many people are looking again at the way we do things,” Townsend says.
He adds: “If we make the decision that we want to be better, then we must try to be better because it is the only way to change society.”