The University of Birmingham has been awarded €4 million (£3.7m) to set up a pilot facility to reclaim rare earth materials from electronic devices.
The facility will focus on recycling magnets made of neodymium, boron and iron, which are found in electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbine generators, household appliances and hard disk drives.
The use of the magnets is said to have increased exponentially over the last 30 years and demand is forecast to rise to tens of thousands of tonnes by 2030.
The university says China produces around 80% of the world’s rare earth metals but currently less than 1% is recycled.
It adds there has also been significant volatility in the price of rare earth metals in recent years and therefore, recycling the magnets could help protect the supply chain for Europe’s manufacturing base.
The grant from the EU’s Horizon 2020 project will, therefore, support a new rare earth metal recycling supply chain, which should be capable of producing 20 tonnes of recycled magnets a year that would otherwise go to landfill.
A robotic sorting line will locate and concentrate the rare earth metal magnets from scrap at Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham, recycling facilities will extract the metal alloy powders and these will be used to manufacture recycled magnets in plants in the UK, Germany and Slovenia.
Previous methods of extracting the metals required disassembly and removal of the magnet.
The new process will, however, use hydrogen to break down the magnetic alloys into a powder, which is easily separated from the remaining components and is therefore expected to save time, labour and money.
Professor Allan Walton from the School of Metallurgy and Materials said: “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.
“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.”