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The Challenge

Rare earth elements (REEs) like neodymium are critical in the manufacture of many modern electronic goods, including smartphones, hard disks, and hybrid cars. Currently the vast majority of worldwide REE production happens in China. There are no active sources in the European Union, leaving industries and consumers vulnerable to interruptions in supply.

One potential source of REEs is from recycled end-of-life electronics and the EU is funding research into recycling methods, including the REMANENCE project. There are no existing processes for the recovery of NdFeB magnets from waste streams, and these materials are either lost to landfill or are lost in the recovery and processing of other associated metals that occur in waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). Developing an effective way of recovering NdFeB magnets is a necessary step towards ensuring Europe’s resource security.

Project Objectives

The REMANENCE project is focused on one aspect of REE recycling – the recovery of neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) magnets from current waste streams. The project aims to create a process to allow efficient identification and recovery of these magnets from electronics waste, followed ideally by processing into new NbFeB magnets; or recovery of neodymium oxide where direct processing into new magnets is not possible.

Methodology

The process employs advanced sensing and mechanical separation techniques to recover the magnets from electrical and electronic equipment.  A conveyorised process uses software with an integrated optical and magnetic sensor system to identify NdFeB magnets within larger pieces of electronic waste (for example a hard drive or a mobile phone) and then cuts the waste into sections, retaining the parts with NdFeB magnets and diverting the rest for other recycling processes.

The recovered magnets then undergo hydrogen decrepitation – a chemical process that breaks up the magnets – to transform them into a powder, which is then used to make new sintered or polymer-bonded magnets. Lower-grade waste is reprocessed into neodymium oxide, which can then be further processed into neodymium metal.

Key Results

REMANENCE successfully tested the entire process from the collection of suitable waste electronics to the manufacture of magnets from recycled NdFeB powder. The virtual process for production-level processing of NdFeB magnets involves four sites around the EU: Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Slovakia. Of particular interest is the plant in Sweden, capable of processing almost one million units per year.

Some level of infrastructure investment may be desirable to bring this process to full production readiness. Analysis of the project results suggests the recycled magnets produced through the process are economically competitive with magnets produced from newly-mined materials, and would reduce European dependency on a few vulnerable sources of REEs.

 

Sorting using the Remanence Technology:-

 

VCM Assembly

 

Publicly available information:-

 

Video - Remanence Trials in ABI, Spain

 

 
Remanence is supported by the EU FP7 Programme