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Research specialists unite over rare earth scarcity

Europe – Demand for rare earth metals like neodymium and dysprosium is expected to rise to such levels that their availability will be extremely limited by 2015. With this in mind, seven major European research institutes – Fraunhofer, SINTEF, VTT, CEA, TNO, Tecnalia and SP – have joined forces in a bid to address material scarcity.

The research groups have created a joint programme called ′Value from Waste′. The aim is to enhance the extraction of valuable materials from waste streams, notes Odd Løvhaugen of Denmark’s SINTEF ICT. ‘The challenges lie in the fact that the material must be sufficiently clean in order to be recycled, and we have to be sure that it is not contaminated by other harmful materials,′ he points out.

As a result, researchers are focusing most of their attention on: identifying which products could contain pollutants; which methods are best for analysing and measuring the content of the polluted materials; and when such products can be expected to be found in waste. Other core tasks include evaluating techniques to recycle nanoparticles in the treatment process, and how the constituents of ash can be analysed after incineration.

SINTEF researchers, who are leading the EU programme, have conducted several tests with permanent magnets – known to be a key source of rare earth metals. They have concluded that the electrolysis technology used in aluminium plants is highly suited to the recycling of magnetic alloys from discarded magnets and similar scrap material from magnet manufacturers.

The electrolysis process is both promising and slow, the researchers state, but its successful refinement will yield a method ′much simpler′ than alternative processes relying heavily on strong acids. But ahead of the process itself, other stages must first be improved; the collection and disassembly of used magnets remain problematic, and magnets must be demagnetised locally because long-distance transportation of intact permanent magnets is against the law.

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