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Multi-million rare earths recycling centre coming to Birmingham

The University of Birmingham has received EUR 4 million in funding to establish a rare earth metals recycling facility.

The pilot plant will focus on recycling magnets made of neodymium, boron and iron. These rare earth metals are found in hard disk drives and household appliances as well as in electric vehicles.

The multi-million grant will fund the development of a complete European supply chain that is capable of producing 20 tonnes of recycled magnets a year that would otherwise go to landfill.

Robots and hydrogen

A robotic sorting line will locate and concentrate the rare earth magnets from scrap at Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham. Next, recycling facilities will extract the metal alloy powders. These will be used to create recycled magnets in the UK, Germany and Slovenia.

An innovative process developed by University of Birmingham researchers will be a key aspect of this new supply chain. The new process relies on hydrogen to break down magnetic metal alloys into a powder. This poweder is easily separated from the remaining components, saving lots of time and money. Another benefit is that the new method can handle multiple items at the same time.

£1 trillion industry

In the last 30 years, the use of these rare metals has ‘increased exponentially’, says Professor Allan Walton, one of the inventors of the new process. He expects demand will increase tens of thousands of tonnes in the next ten years.

‘Rare earth magnets are used in practically every application that uses electricity to produce motion, and underpin industries that are worth more than £1 trillion worldwide,’ Professor Walton observes. 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,’ he adds.

The pilot facility is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 innovation programme.

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