New CMI process recycles magnets from factory floor

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Ames Lab researcher Ikenna Nlebedim
Ames Lab researcher Ikenna Nlebedim

A new recycling method developed by scientists at the Critical Materials Institute, a U.S. Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by the Ames Laboratory, recovers valuable rare-earth magnetic material from manufacturing waste and creates useful magnets out of it. Efficient waste-recovery methods for rare-earth metals are one way to reduce demand for these limited mined resources.

The process, which inexpensively processes and directly reuses samarium-cobalt waste powders as raw material, can be used to create polymer-bonded magnets that are comparable in performance to commercial bonded magnets made from new materials. It can also be used to make sintered magnets (formed by pressure compaction and heat).

The grinding and cutting processes used to manufacture magnets produces waste metal powders and filings, called swarf. When swarf contains costly rare-earth materials like samarium, neodymium, and dysprosium, materials recovery is important.

Early on, the CMI research team’s goal was to find an efficient method of separating and recovering the rare-earth metals for reuse. But CMI scientist Ikenna Nlebedim said he and co-inventor Bill McCallum wanted to push further. “We decided to see if there is a possibility of reusing the swarf itself for magnet manufacturing,” he said. “We wanted to see if we could save that extra step of metals separation, because it’s not just an extra step, it’s an expensive and time consuming one.”

The initial results of the process produced magnets with a magnetic strength (maximum energy product) of approximately 11 MGOe (megagauss-oersteds), a property that the team believes they can improve by optimizing the process.

“If we can optimize the process, this magnet will fit very well in a performance gap that exists between the non-rare-earth magnets and rare-earth magnets,” Nlebedim said. The product may be a more cost-effective choice for some applications, reducing the need for more expensive neodymium-iron-boron magnets.

Nlebedim said the researchers continue to explore other possibilities for the technology as well, including the production of sintered samarium-cobalt magnets, a material with more economic value than bonded magnets. Nlebedim said the process also accomplishes its original goal of separating rare-earth metals, when necessary.

“I think the beauty of this process is that it has direct value to manufacturers of magnets,” said Nlebedim. “They recover their own swarf directly and recycle it themselves. Because it is not recovered from post-consumer products, manufacturers retain quality control of the composition of their materials and can be confident of the grade of their product. From a profit standpoint, this process is very strategically placed to benefit them.”

For information regarding the licensing of this technology, contact Craig Forney at Iowa State University's Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer, 515-294-9513,

The Critical Materials Institute is a Department of Energy Innovation Hub led by the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory. CMI seeks ways to eliminate and reduce reliance on rare-earth metals and other materials critical to the success of clean energy technologies.

Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory operated by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and interdisciplinary collaborations to solve global problems.

Ames Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Ikenna Nlebedim, Critical Materials Institute, (515)294-7901
Laura Millsaps, Ames Laboratory Public Affairs, (515)294-3474