The SusChem-supported Horizon 2020 project REE4EU has successfully demonstrated at a pilot scale a closed-loop permanent magnet recycling process for the first time in Europe. The REE4EU pilot has successfully treated several tons of in-process wastes and end-of-life magnetic products containing rare earth elements, resulting in the recovery of almost hundred kilos of rare earth alloys. The alloy will be reused in the manufacturing of permanent magnet products, thereby closing the materials loop!
The successful recycling of permanent magnet waste is a major result for the REE4EU SPIRE project whose full title is: Integrated High Temperature Electrolysis (HTE) and Ion Liquid Extraction (ILE) for a Strong and Independent European Rare Earth Elements Supply Chain.
Rare earth elements (REEs) are the seventeen chemical elements including the lanthanides, Scandium and Yttrium that are key-enablers of sustainable technologies. They are used in hybrid electric vehicles, wind turbines, and highly efficient electric motors. Currently European industries are highly reliant on imports of these valuable and rare materials. Recycling the elements from REE-containing waste streams could constitute an important secondary source of the materials for Europe.
A recent study estimated the global trade in REE-containing products in 2010 is around EUR 1.5 trillion, or 13% of global trade. However, only 1% of REE waste is being recovered as no adequate process is currently available. REE4EU’s success could open-up a brand-new route to recover process wastes from permanent magnet production.
During the third year of this four-year project that started in October 2015, work has focused on constructing and running the REE4EU's pilot units: the high temperature electrolysis (HTE) and ionic liquid extraction (ILE) units. The technology has now been demonstrated at pre-industrial scale using permanent magnet wastes.
Enough waste material (in-process waste and end-of-life magnets) has been treated to obtain enough rare earth alloy (REA) to run a 600 kg batch of strip cast rare earth master alloy (REMA) and output material from the HTE pilot cell has been used to manufacture permanent magnets in a laboratory line.
The quality of both the REMA input and the permanent magnet output obtained in terms of magnetic properties and chemical composition show that the magnets prepared have the same properties as magnets from mass production using virgin materials. This validates the REE4EU technology to obtain REA for permanent magnet production using magnet waste materials.
The two-step process (ILE then HTE) has been optimised for direct REA production, suitable for REMA to be used in permanent magnet manufacturing. In this way, a complete closed-loop permanent magnet recycling has been demonstrated at a pre-industrial scale using less steps than conventional methods currently carried out in China.
The process and its advantages are explained in this REE4EU video.
In the next few months, the REA obtained in the HTE unit will be used to manufacture REMA for permanent magnets in a real magnet production line and benchmarked against magnets produced using virgin materials.
Data collection and modelling activities on permanent magnet waste recycling routes have been carried out and these results will be used to eco-design the recycling chain and to compare it to the conventional supply route of REA currently used for permanent magnet production.
For more information on the REE4EU processes visit their website.