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Making rare earth materials as sustainable as possible

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21.09.2021

Making rare earth materials as sustainable as possible

Rare earth magnets are increasing in demand as we shift to a zero-carbon economy, and electric vehicles especially use a lot of magnets. Currently, less than 1% of these magnets are actually recycled, so as the demand for them increases, as does the scale of extraction and processing of the rare earth materials, which is creating huge environmental issues.

RaRE is a project underway at Advanced Electric Machines that has set out to answer: how do we extract rare earth materials from waste electronics and recycle them back into magnets to be used in motors, and do we do this in a sustainable way? 

Why?

There are a considerable number of individual magnets in the non-drive mechanisms in a car. Many of these magnets are tiny, so they cannot easily be replaced with magnet-free technology. The question then becomes, how do we make these irreplaceable magnets as sustainable as possible?

For all the time and effort invested, recycling rare earth materials has been broadly unsuccessful. The current process is to either melt magnets back to a master alloy or use solvent extraction to extract rare earth materials. Not only are these processes energy-intensive, but they also require magnets to be separate from other components in the motor housing, which often isn’t the case. With a limited supply available, manufacturers are looking for a more practical and cost-effective way of operating systems using magnet-based technology.

Working with the leader in magnet recycling and manufacturing, HyProMag, and the University of Birmingham, our goal is to broaden the range of scrap for the extraction of magnets and scale-up the extraction and recycling processes to make as many motor technologies as sustainable as possible.

The recycled magnets will be used in the bespoke ancillary motors designed and manufactured by AEM, and applied by Bentley Motors. Unipart will then develop a scalable manufacturing route for the volume production of this design. 

The Opportunities

There are currently no motor designs on the market using recycled rare earth materials. Aside from making this an industry first, there are broader opportunities from the outcome of the RaRE project.

For instance, the scrap separation process that will be developed has applications within both global waste handling and waste handling facility designs. There are also benefits for recycled rare earth production facilities from the models of scrap processing and magnet manufacturing that will be developed, and all these processes and materials will be applicable across several sectors, creating a huge number of opportunities in different applications.

These outcomes from RaRE will present an opportunity to create a competitive advantage for UK motor manufacturing by developing a differentiated supply chain for motors and power electronics, which is expected to grow to £5 billion by 2025. The cost-effective production of magnetic materials could turn the UK into an exporter of magnets for tractions motors and inherently protect the UK from future supply issues. 

Our Solution

The University of Birmingham developed its patented Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap method for use with neodymium iron boron (NdFeB) magnets. This process reduces these types of magnets to a de-magnetised powder that can be mechanically removed from a component. The powder is then purified and remanufactured by resintering, where it is compacted into a solid form using heat or pressure.

This solution allows the extraction of magnets from a wide variety of sources, from automotive products to loudspeakers and hard disk drives, creating immense scale-up opportunities for the project.

AEM are also developing prototype motor designs that have been optimised to use these recycled rare earths whilst meeting the high performance and reliability criteria required by vehicle manufacturers.

Read the RaRE press release: https://advancedelectricmachines.com/new-bentley-motors-project-announcement/