Rare earth magnet recycling technology branches out

Recycling end-of-life rare earth magnets is an early-stage industry with a range of methods globally and low recycling rates – but there is appetite for change, Fastmarkets learned after talking to several industry participants

Rare earth magnet recycling was put in the spotlight in late 2023, when a new technology from UK startup HyProMag was among the first to be supported by the Mineral Security Partnership, a US-led organization of 14 countries focused on sustainable supply of critical minerals.

But the industry is still new.

“Most magnets go to landfills today,” Mark Jensen, chief executive officer of US battery and rare earth recycler ReElement, told Fastmarkets.

Less than 1% of end-of-life magnets are recycled annually, US recycling company REEcycle estimated.

“One of the reasons is that it is very difficult to recycle a magnet embedded in an assembly in a cost- and energy-efficient way,” HyProMag CEO Will Dawes told Fastmarkets.

Rare earth magnets for recycling (feedstock) usually come from a range of end-of life products, varying in sizes: from around 1 tonne magnets from wind turbines to 1 kg magnets in an electric motor and much smaller magnets from consumer electronics.

Swarf, or offcuts from magnet production, is another source of feedstock for the emerging industry and praised for being easy to work with since it does not need disassembling.

Recycling technologies are mostly proprietary, but according to specialized publications they can be categorized into four categories:

  • pyrometallurgical (involving heating and smelting)
  • hydrometallurgical (involving specialised liquids such as acids and other solvents)
  • direct recycling (dismantling and reusing)
  • hybrid processes

“Hydro and pyrometallurgical processes are the most common now,” Hyeonu Do, from South Korean battery recycler Sebit, told Fastmarkets. Sebit is considering a move into the rare earth recycling space.

The power of high temperatures

“Pyrometallurgy uses a lot of energy compared to hydrometallurgy, and if the feedstock is not managed properly, the levels of impurities in the final product may be higher,” Do said. Managing feedstock means separating it by the type of magnet, he added.

Pyrometallurgical processes have been used, among others, by Japan’s Nissan and Hitachi, both companies said previously.

Nissan is recycling rare earth elements from motors that do not meet production standards. After several steps, including manual disassembly and removal of magnets, rare earth elements are recovered from molten slag during the pyrometallurgical process. At the time of publication the company had not responded to additional questions.

Hitachi Group has used pyrometallurgic technology to extract rare earth magnets from used hard disk drives, the company told Fastmarkets. But it has also used the conventional technology of “other magnet manufacturers” for extracting rare earth materials, which are hydrometallurgic.

Some companies use heating or sintering technology, not smelting.

Noveon Magnetic, a US sintered neodymium iron boron (NdFeB) magnet manufacturer, describes their recycling process as “powder metallurgy” based, which involves heating. The company told Fastmarkets that they expect all of their 2,000 tonnes of 2025 magnet production to be supported by end-of-life recycled material.

A variety of liquids in use

Hydrometallurgical technologies also vary from company to company, but have some common traits.

“With hydrometallurgy, you need to prepare material and use powder types of feedstock to make the reaction faster. In a similar way, granulated sugar takes less time to dissolve in a cup of tea compared to lump sugar,” Do said.

Established recycling companies using proprietary hydrometallurgic methods include Japan’s Shin-Etsu.

Shin-Etsu has been recycling rare earth magnets at its plant in Japan since 2008 and in its Vietnam plant since 2013 on industrial scale capacity. Production and recycling capacity numbers are unknown. During the recycling process, Shin-Etsu uses acids and other solvents as part of its filtration process. Shin-Etsu can provide the whole recycling process inhouse within its light-and heavy rare earth separation circuits. 

Ionic liquids

UK startup IonicTech uses liquid-liquid extraction technology, which relies on liquid salts and ligands as extractants to chemically separate rare earth elements from crushed magnets and swarf. Ligands are ions or molecules that bond with a central metal ion or atom.

Ionic’s demonstration plant in Belfast, which has been operating since January 2024, is targeting output of 10 tonnes of separated rare earth oxides annually, the company said. Ionic partnered with UK producer Less Common Metals to turn the oxides into metal and magnet alloy.

“Magnet materials get demagnetized in an oven, crushed, milled, then digested, so we can separate rare earths from base metals, iron and boron,” Ionic CEO Tim Harrison told Fastmarkets.

“Then the rare earth-rich stream is fed into the solvent extraction circuit, where ionic liquids are used to separate the rare earths into their elemental forms,” Harrison said.

As a result, Ionic can produce greater than 99.5% purity oxides of light rare earths neodymium and praseodymium, as well as heavy rare earths dysprosium, terbium, gadolinium and holmium, Harrison said.

Chromatographic approach

Another hydrometallurgical recycler, US firm ReElement, uses continuous chromatography, a method applied in the sugar industry to separate glucose and fructose but not used by anyone else for rare earth recycling, CEO Mark Jensen told Fastmarkets.

After automatic dismantling and leaching, mixed rare-earth-containing liquid is put through a continuous chromatography process to separate the elements, Jensen said.

ReElement’s chromatography process involves the rare earth mix being introduced into columns loaded with specialised resin, which gets washed with a solution to create layered separation of rare earth elements and to process them into high purity oxides later, the company told Fastmarkets.

ReElement’s rare earth recycling facility in the US will start up in the second half of 2024, with planned capacity of 1,000 tonnes of oxides a year, Jensen told Fastmarkets. The company has a sales agreement to supply purified rare earth oxides to local junior producer USA Rare Earth, ReElement said in March.

Mixed methods

French rare earth refiner Carester is planning to commission a recycling plant in France as part of its Caremag project by the first quarter of 2026, the company told Fastmarkets.

After dismantling, the permanent magnets are treated mechanically first, and then with a combination of pyro–hydro processes followed by separation of rare earths with a solvent extraction method, Carester CEO Frédéric Carencotte’s told Fastmarkets.

Caremag is planning to produce rare earth oxides – neodymium, praseodymium, terbium and dysprosium – in Lacq, France, from recycled magnets and from heavy rare earth mining concentrates, eventually ramping up to recycling 2,000 tonnes of rare earth magnets per year and processing 5,000 tonnes of heavy rare earth concentrates.

In the industry, both hydro- and pyrometallurgical processes are called “long loop” recycling, as opposed to “short loop.”

Both methods are complementary, Carencotte said. The long loop method can accept all kinds of permanent magnets and provides oxides identical to those produced from mined material, requiring metallurgists’ efforts, he added.

But the short loop method can recreate the same type of magnets without additional efforts from metallurgists, according to Carencotte; yet after several recycling loops, the performance of permanent magnets can deteriorate.

Short loop, or magnet-to-magnet, recycling

US company Okon Recycling is using the direct recycling method for end-of life magnets, which involves demagnetizing, dismantling, harvesting and prepping rare earth magnets to be reused, Louis Okon, the company’s president, told Fastmarkets.

Its output is “hundreds of tonnes of rare earth magnets per year” and recycled magnets are often reused in a similar product by the original equipment maker (OEM), Okon said. Unused magnets are supplied as recycling feed for companies utilizing more resource-intense magnet manufacturing options, he added.

“Direct recycling utilizes the least number of resources to generate a finished product,” Okon said.

Other “magnet-to-magnet” recycling options may result in demagnetized rare earth alloy powder, as with HyProMag’s method of hydrogen processing of magnetic scrap (HPMS), developed at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

“Pre-processed scrap containing magnets is put into a hydrogen vessel, where hydrogen reacts with the magnets inside to form an alloy powder, at the same time demagnetizing the powder,” Dawes said.

This demagnetizing is key to recovering magnets, which would be difficult to be separated from their surroundings otherwise, Dawes added.

“Then you can either remake the resulting powder directly back into a magnet, remelt or chemically process it,” he said. “A chemical processing pilot plant will be commissioned in Tyseley, Birmingham, UK, in 2024, with a planned recycling capacity of at least 100 tonnes of magnets a year,” he said.

HyProMag plans to commission another plant in Germany in 2025, with a similar capacity of 100 tonnes per year, then in the US in 2025-2026, with a 500 tpy capacity, Dawes said.

Consumers looking for materials that can go straight into production

End consumers, including OEMs and automakers, are looking for recycling options that result in products that can be put back into the supply chain.

“Now OEMs have a greater appetite to engage in recycling as opposed to mining,” Ionic’s Harrison said. In his view, this is driven by the optics around mining, with recycling initiatives providing OEMs with better sustainability options.

“Recycling is on everyone’s agenda: you cannot have strategic minerals like rare earths getting lost in landfill,” Dawes said.

Automakers are interested in high-quality recycled products that can go straight back into production, recyclers said.

The quality of oxides that could go back into the automakers’ supply chain are “the number one aspect,” ReElement’s Jensen said. Harrison agreed with that sentiment, adding that “consistency of quality” is also important.

Since dismantling is a costly and energy-intensive process, Dawes said, HyProMag’s “big solution” is the separation process resulting in magnet powder, which has lower costs and a lower carbon footprint compared with both long loop hydrometallurgical recycling processes and conventional mine-to-magnet production.

No single best way of recycling

“Currently, there is no cross-industry process,” a Hitachi spokesperson told Fastmarkets. “We recognize that industry rules and standardization will be an issue in the future.”

“In the forming of supply chains, there is room for a lot of technologies that could help to deal with feedstock with variable rare earth compositions,” Harrison said.

There is interest, not only from end users, but also from policy makers.

On November 13, the European Commission announced increased targets for recycling to at least 25% of EU’s annual consumption of raw materials, which is up from 15% announced in March 2023.

“Magnet recycling may fulfil a portion of total demand for rare earths, and setting targets at 25% is a great place to start,” Harrison said.

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