Permanent magnets based on rare earth elements are essential components of many high-tech products and of great importance for the green energy transition. Nevertheless, a large proportion of the respective raw materials currently needs to be imported to meet EU demand. As the main exporter, China dominates and controls the global market. With the launch of the European Raw Materials Alliance, the EU has now taken an important step to address this imbalance. One of the first items on the agenda is securing a sustainable supply of raw materials for the production of rare earth magnets. In this context, the EU project SUSMAGPRO makes an important contribution by developing a recycling supply chain and demonstrating the effective reuse of recycled materials within several industries.
Permanent magnets based on rare earth elements are high-tech products, indispensable in high-performance electric motors, generators and sensors. As functional components in wind turbines, electric and hybrid vehicles and robotics, they play a fundamental role in the transition to a digital, clean energy future. They form the basis for and industry worth more than three trillion US dollar, with a strong upward trend. Experts predict that demand for permanent magnets will grow by 15-20% annually over the next decade.
Despite their name, rare earth elements are by no
means rare; quantities worthy of extraction are known to exist even in Europe. What
worries European industry representatives is Chinese market dominance.
Processing of ores extracted from open-cast mines produces large quantities of
problematic waste such as alkalis, acids and radioactive by-products, and past Chinese
environmental regulations have made unrivalled low-cost production possible.
This resulted in a ruinous worldwide price-war, which forced most competitors
out of the market. However, while the Chinese state is currently undertaking
great efforts to close illegal mines and bring environmental regulations up to
international standards, its long-term investments and the consequent market
development over the last 50 years have made market access for European
companies increasingly difficult. It is worrying that China not only covers the
entire value chain from ore mining to end use, but also combines high
investments in the industry with a cap on mining capacity and export
restrictions in its current five-year plan. China openly describes that turning
raw material advantage into market leadership in key technologies has priority
over the export of raw materials or magnets. Growing political tensions
combined with import duty considerations further increase price volatility and
thus vulnerability of the market.
Considering these developments, it is only logical
that the European Commission has now launched the European Raw Materials Alliance
(ERMA), whose first priority it is to secure raw materials for permanent
magnets. The Alliance plans to increase supply security of magnetic materials
through strategic cooperation with more stable partners such as Canada or
Australia in the extraction and processing of raw materials. Furthermore, it
foresees the support of African countries in establishing sustainable
production and the expansion of cooperation with Latin American countries. In
line with the European Green Deal, the alliance also places a strong focus on
recycling the 20,000 tons of permanent magnets already in the European market. As
Maroš ŠEFČOVIČ, Vice-President of the European Commission for
Interinstitutional Relations, said at the official launch on 29th
September: “The recycling of raw materials from electrical and electronic waste
in urban mining and competitive sustainability are absolutely essential to
reduce dependence on China, and the recycling rate of permanent magnets must be
Here, the EU project SUSMAGPRO makes an important
contribution. Whereas previous approaches recover the rare earth elements (REE)
neodymium and dysprosium through complex hydro- or pyrometallurgical processes
and re-alloy them with iron and boron, a shorter recycling process is employed
by the 19 European partners within SUSMAGPRO. The magnet material is embrittled
and pulverised with the aid of hydrogen (HPMS, Hydrogen Processing of Magnetic
Scrap). The powder can then be directly reprocessed into magnets without
splitting it into its individual alloy components, thus saving over 90% of
energy compared to primary production methods and reducing toxicity by as much
as 98%. By 2024, once production maturity is achieved, 110 tons of magnetic
waste will be recycled annually in four pilot plants in Sweden, the UK,
Slovenia and Germany. The project consortium covers the entire recycling chain
from large recycling companies and magnet manufacturers to end users of
traction motors, loudspeakers, wind turbines and heating pumps.
does not lie in the actual recycling process. The HPMS process for
neodymium-iron-boron magnets is efficient and cost-effective. Unfortunately,
however, there is a wide variety of magnets on the market, e.g. ferrites or
samarium-cobalt magnets, which are difficult to recycle, and the components
containing magnets are not subject to mandatory labelling. Often, dismantling
of components is also more expensive than the raw material value contained in
them, which is why electronic scrap is often shredded," explains project
coordinator Professor Dr Carlo Burkhardt from Pforzheim University. Therefore,
an important task within SUSMAGPRO is the development of sensor technology and
automatic sorting equipment to pre-sort the magnetic waste in a targeted manner
and thus increase process efficiency. SUSMAGPRO is also looking at how to
design new products to increase their recyclability. Burkhardt is confident
that by consistently recycling components with a high magnetic content, i.e.
primarily from wind turbines, electric cars, computer hard drives and pumps, a
recycling rate of 15-25% can be achieved in the medium term.
"But only if we all work together. Manufacturers, consumers and policy
makers are equally challenged. By creating labelling standards, using
recyclable products and developing new, particularly resource-efficient
value-added chains, we must succeed not only in compensating for the current
local disadvantage, but also in transforming it into an advantage in the medium
term". The foundation of the European Raw Materials Alliance is an
immensely important first step in this direction.
Stay tuned for the
next SUSMAGPRO press release on the topic Design for Recycling.
SUSMAGPRO has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 821114.