Drives and Controls Magazine
UK project aims to recycle rare-earths for use in new motors
Published:  11 June, 2020

A group of UK companies, including Bentley Motors and the electric motor developer Advanced Electric Machines Research, have embarked on a £2.6m project to develop technologies for recovering rare-earth materials from old equipment and recycle them for use in new electric motors. The RaRE (Rare-earth Recycling for E-machines) project has secured £1.9m of funding from the government-backed Innovate UK organisation.

The project is being led by Birmingham-based HyProMag which has a licence for a patented process for extracting neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) rare-earth alloy powders from magnets embedded in scrap and redundant equipment. The process, called PMS (Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap), was originally developed by the University of Birmingham’s Magnetic Materials Group.

The project aims, for the first time, to establish an end-to-end supply chain to incorporate recycled rare-earth magnets into ancillary motors, especially for use in electric vehicles.

In addition to HyProMag, the project members are:
• the motor designer Advanced Electric Machines Research, whose customers include Airbus and Tevva Motors;
• the luxury car-maker, Bentley Motors, which is part of the VW group;
• the electronics waste processor, Intelligent Lifecycle Solutions; and
• the automotive supplier, Unipart Powertrain Applications.

HyProMag plans to scale up the HPMS process and process the rare-earth materials back into new magnetic materials at pilot scale to demonstrate the quality of the materials, in terms of their magnetic behaviour, mechanical performance and corrosion resistance. Intelligent Lifecycle Solutions will establish the scrap-sorting process to maximise its efficiency and the volumes of the rare-earth materials produced.

The recycled magnets will be incorporated in an ancillary electric motor designed with recycling in mind by Advanced Electric Machines Research to a Bentley specification. A key aim is to reduce the complexity of electrical systems in electric vehicles. It is thought that this will be the first time that such a motor containing recycled rare-earths will have been produced. Unipart will design of a flexible assembly line that could produce 100,000 of the motors every year.

“RaRE is an exciting project and a fantastic opportunity to prove the importance and worth of short loop recycled magnetic material,” says Nick Mann, HyProMag’s operations general manager. “NdFeB magnets are essential for many future technologies, and the emerging electric vehicle market is of increasing importance.

“Being involved at this level means we not only get to work with, and supply, recycled magnets to some of the most innovative and globally recognised companies, but also allows us to influence the design of products with the aim of making recycling a better option in the future,” he adds. “I believe this is industry, technology, recycling and innovation working together at its impressive best.”

Rare-earth materials: the new UK process could recover them from old equipment to create magnets for new electric motors

HyProMag, founded in 2018, plans to establish a recycling facility at Tyseley in Birmingham that will provide a sustainable supply of NdFeB magnets and alloy powders. As well as the sintered NdFeB magnets for the proposed automotive applications, HyProMag is evaluating several other options including hydrogen-decrepitated (HD) demagnetised powders suitable for magnet producers, alloy ingots re-melted from HD powders for alloy feeds or magnets, and anisotropic alloy powders for bonded magnets.

The £700,000 balance of the project costs (after Innovate UK’s £1.9m contribution) is being split between the project partners. In the case of HyProMag, Innovate UK will contribute £657,717 and HyProMag will contribute £281,879. HyProMag’s contribution will be funded by a £300,000 investment in the company made in January 2020 by Maginito, giving it a 25% stake in the business. Maginito, which also provided a £200,000 convertible loan facility to HyProMag, is a subsidiary of a Canadian business, Mkango Resources, which explores for rare-earth elements and associated minerals in the African state of Malawi.

“We are very excited about this innovative project and the opportunity to scale up and commercialise the HPMS technology,” says Mkango’s CEO, William Dawes. “We envisage that recycling of rare-earth magnets will play a key role in the development of robust supply chains to catalyse and support growth in the electric vehicle sector and in other clean technologies. Further building on our platform within the circular economy and downstream markets is a key component of our strategy, underpinned by the sustainable development of the Songwe Hill rare-earths project in Malawi.”

Rare-earth materials are widely used to create powerful permanent magnets used in electric motors and other applications. Electric and hybrid vehicles can contain hundreds of these magnets in applications such as drive motors, fans, generators, power steering, pumps, seat motors and loudspeakers. A 100kW peak power permanent magnet traction motor alone typically contains about 1.2kg of rare-earth magnets.

China currently dominates the global supply of rare-earth materials and has raised their prices dramatically during periods of tension. Although there is considerable attraction in being able to recycle rare-earths, this is not happening much at present because of technical difficulties in separating magnets from waste.

For example, recovering NdFeB magnets from computer hard drives requires the removal of up to ten security screws and then extracting the coated magnets which are glued in placed. If the magnets are contained in electronic and automotive waste which is shredded (as most is), they break up into a magnetised powder that sticks to the ferrous scrap and to the shredder itself.