Essay Example on the Strategy on Recycle of Rare Earth Elements

Published: 2022-06-17
Essay Example on the Strategy on Recycle of Rare Earth Elements
Type of paper:  Research paper
Categories:  Environment Geology
Pages: 4
Wordcount: 1094 words
10 min read

Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are critical to not only the economy but also to the environment. REEs possess unique properties that make them ideal substitutes for traditional materials. As a result, they are increasingly being used in various industries such as computer manufacturing, phone manufacturing, defense systems, chemical engineering, the energy sector, and so forth. In the energy sector, unique properties of the REEs have made them ideal alternatives for the manufacture of rechargeable batteries, catalysts, permanent magnets, solar cells, lamp phosphorus, and so forth. One challenge facing the global supply chain of REE is that 90% of it is concentrated in China. China has tight control of the export and the majority of the countries in demand of the REE more likely to face the risk of supply interruptions. Since 10% is shared by the rest of the world, companies involved in the mining of the elopements are either reopening old mines or exploring new deposits of exploitable REEs. However, countries that do not possess deposits of REEs are more likely to face supply risks. Consequently, recycling is the only viable option. This paper covers the recycling of REEs. Specifically, it is going to discuss the recycling of Neodymium, one of the most widely applied REE.

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Applications of Neodymium

Neodymium is one of the REE that is often used in various applications such as sustainable technologies. Due to its scarcity, studies have focused on how it can be recycled to minimize supply risks. One of the major application of Neodymium is computer Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) (Sprecher, Kleijn, and Kramer, 2014; Binnemans et al., 2013). Neodymium is an ideal candidate for the manufacture of permanent magnets used in the electric vehicles and wind turbines since they exhibit higher performance as compared with the traditional magnets that were iron-based. Although HDD manufacturer is not among the largest applications of neodymium, it represents one of the greatest opportunity to recycle the element in large scale.

NdFeB Magnets

The production of NdFeB magnets involve 25% neodymium, 66% iron, 5% praseodymium, and alloyed with various amounts of other elements. The product is a magnet with the desired properties. For example, a magnet with a higher operating temperature can be obtained by an adding a small quantity of dysprosium. Estimates in 2007 show that neodymium production was 21, 141 tons while the production of NdFeB magnets was about 70, 000 tons in the same year. This suggests that 18,500 tons or about 88% of neodymium supply were used to produce permanent magnets. Other applications of the element include ceramics industry, glass additive, metallurgy, and catalytic converters. Statistics from the industry reveal that the applications of NdFeB comprise hard disk drives (8-35%), wind turbines (0-15%), automotive (15-25%), electric motors (25%), and so forth (Sprecher, Kleijn, and Kramer, 2014). This distribution in the applications suggests that there is a potential for neodymium recycling from NdFeB magnets present in HDDs, wind turbines, automotive, and electric motors. From a recycling standpoint, the small volume and varied nature of neodymium applications in nonpermanent applications suggest that recycling from such sources would not have a significant impact on the supply. While recycling from electric motors, wind turbines, and electric cars may look viable, their life cycle of over 20 years shows that it is only possible in the future. Computers have a very short lifetime, and therefore there is a high potential for recycling neodymium from HDDs as compared to other sources. HDDs may continue to remain a key source of neodymium recycling until the year 2025. At the moment, HDDs remain the only major and consistent source of recyclable NdFeB.

Technology for Recycling

Magnets in HDDs can be removed manually by hand, but the process is slow and uneconomical since a worker can only manage to remove magnets in 12 HDDs per hour. A method where HDDs roll in a drum-like container until they detach from other parts has been invented. The machine can manage 100 HDDs per hour. But still, the magnets have to be removed by hand once they detach from other parts. Once the magnets have been separated from the HDDs, three traditional processes used to recycle are gas-phase extraction, pyrometallurgical, and hydrometallurgical (Sprecher, Kleijn, and Kramer, 2014). However, the three methods have one problem in common in that all of them require large amounts of energy needed to melt the material. One promising process for recycling HDD is hydrogen decapitation. In the process, HDDs are immersed in hydrogen gas leading them to break down into small parts. The hydrogen will cause the magnetic part of the HDD to powder without necessarily affecting the other parts of the HDD. This process allows the powder to be removed from the HDD by shaping it. The process leads to not only avoiding the costly manual process, but it also leads to recovery efficiency of over 95%. Binnemans et al. (2013) also pointed out that Gas-phase extraction process is advantageous in that it can be used in almost all types of magnetic compositions. The process is also applicable to both oxidized, and non-oxidized alloys. Further, the process do not result in wastewater. Two of the major disadvantages are that it leads to a huge consumption of chlorine gas, and the aluminium chloride in the process is very corrosive.

Future of NdFeB Recycling

Studies conducted by Sprecher, Kleijn, and Kramer (2014) showed that the potential for recycling NdFeB magnets varies over time. According to the researchers, the demand line for NdFeB was to end in 2017, while the forecasted recycling potential will end in 2023. The variety in the potential for recycling is caused by changes in the demands of the HDDs as well as a decreasing NdFeB content in every HDD. There are barriers to recycling NdFeB from HDD which include prohibitive costs. There is also the possibility that manufacturers may reduce the content of NdFeB in HDDs. Manufacturers may also replace HDDs with SSDs. Additionally, a change in the design of HDDs may make it even harder to recover the magnets. The authors suggested that if neodymium is to be used sustainably, much of the effort should be focused on categorizing the applications in which it is feasible to design a closed-loop and utilize only neodymium for such uses. Further, they pointed out that the potential of neodymium recycling can be enhanced by tracing it from the mines, products, and ultimately the waste.


Binnemans, K., Jones, P. T., Blanpain, B., Van Gerven, T., Yang, Y., Walton, A., & Buchert, M. (2013). Recycling of rare earths: a critical review. Journal of cleaner production, 51, 1-22.

Sprecher, B., Kleijn, R., & Kramer, G. J. (2014). Recycling potential of neodymium: the case of computer hard disk drives. Environmental science & technology, 48(16), 9506-9513.

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