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Reclaiming rare earths

Thu, 10/25/2012 - 8:59am

Recycling keeps paper, plastics, and even jeans out of landfills. Could recycling rare-earth magnets do the same? Perhaps, if the recycling process can be improved.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Ames Laboratory are working to more effectively remove the neodymium, a rare earth element, from the mix of other materials in a magnet. Initial results show 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. 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 because, at the time, rare earth prices were low.

But rare earth prices increased ten-fold between 2009 and 2011 and supplies are in question. Therefore, the goal of today’s rare-earth recycling research takes the process one step farther.

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,” said 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,” said Ott. “And Ames Lab can process big enough amounts of material to show that our rare-earth recycling process works on a large scale.”

Source: Ames Laboratory

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