Recycling Rare-Earth Metals from Magnets

Guest_Jim_* - October 25, 2012 06:52AM in Science & Technology

Reduce, reuse, and recycle is the concept behind many efforts to both save the environment and save some money. One area the recycling aspect is somewhat lacking though, is electronics. Electronics are often discarded into landfills and the processes that do exist to reclaim materials from them are not always efficient at doing so. Now researchers at the DOE's Ames Laboratory have found a promising technique for extracting rare-earth metals, like neodymium, from magnets.

Rare-earth magnets spurred a revolution for electronics as their great strength allowed smaller magnets to be used in devices. At the time, the metals were also cheap to acquire, but lately they have been living up to their family name, with prices increasing by an order of magnitude from 2009 to 2011. Years before that though, researchers at Ames developed a method to remove neodymium from magnet-scrap, so it could be used in a magnesium alloy. This method melted magnesium around the magnet-scrap, which caused the neodymium to diffuse into the liquid, but it also causes other rare-earths to diffuse as well. What the researchers have found is that by boiling off the magnesium, they are left with just the rare-earth metals.

This method is not perfect yet though, but the next step is going to be optimizing the process. The researchers also have studied the reclaimed materials and found that the process does not greatly degrade their ability to be used in future magnets. That last point is obviously important as reclaiming the material is not useful if you cannot do anything with it.