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Recycling keeps paper, plastics and even jeans out of landfills. Could recycling rare-earth magnets do the same?

Ames Laboratory scientists are recycling rare earths from magnets, and the recycled materials maintain the properties that make rare-earth magnets useful.

The current rare-earth recycling research builds on Ames Laboratory’s decades of rare-earth processing experience. In the 1990s, Ames Lab scientists developed a process that uses molten magnesium to remove rare earths from neodymium-iron-boron magnet scrap. At the time, rare earth costs were low. Back then, the goal was to produce a mixture of magnesium and neodymium because the neodymium added important strength to the alloy, rather than separate out high-purity rare earths.

But rare earth prices are rising and supplies are in question. Therefore, the goal of today’s rare-earth recycling research takes the process one step farther.

“Now the goal is to make new magnet alloys from recycled rare earths. And we want those new alloys to be similar to alloys made from unprocessed rare-earth materials,” says Ryan Ott, the Ames Laboratory scientist leading the research. “It appears that the processing technique works well. It effectively removes rare earths from commercial magnets.”

ImageOtt’s research team includes Ames Laboratory scientist Larry Jones and scientists from the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology. They are developing and testing the technique in Ames Lab’s Materials Preparation Center.

“We start with sintered, uncoated magnets that contain three rare earths: neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium,” says Ott. “Then we break up the magnets in a mill until the pieces are 2–4 millimeters long.”

Next, the tiny magnet pieces go into a mesh screen box, which is placed in a stainless-steel crucible. Technicians then add chunks of solid magnesium.

A radio frequency furnace heats the material. The magnesium begins to melt, while the magnet chunks remain solid.

“What happens then is that all three rare earths leave the magnetic material by diffusion and enter the molten magnesium,” says Ott. “The iron and boron that made up the original magnet are left behind.”

The molten magnesium and rare-earth mixture is cast into an ingot and cooled. Then they boil off the magnesium, leaving just the rare earth materials behind.

“We’ve found that the properties of the recycled rare earths compare very favorably to ones from unprocessed materials,” says Ott. “We’re continuing to identify the ideal processing conditions.”

The next step is optimizing the extraction process. Then the team plans to demonstrate it on a larger scale.

“We want to help bridge the gap between the fundamental science and using this science in manufacturing,” says Ott. “And Ames Lab can process big enough amounts of material to show that our rare-earth recycling process works on a large scale.”

~ by Breehan Gerleman Lucchesi