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SPIE Professional October 2016

US lab to test method to recycle rare-earth magnets in old computers

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A process developed at the US Oak Ridge National Lab for large-scale recovery of rare-earth magnets from used computer hard drives will undergo industrial testing in Tennessee. The effort is part of the US Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute, which seeks ways to eliminate and reduce reliance on rare-earth metals and other materials critical to the success of clean-energy technologies.

Manufacturers have found it difficult to recycle rare-earth elements (REEs) such as the neodymium in hard drives because there are insufficient quantities available to economically extract them using standard REE recovery technology.

However, REEs are in high demand. The optics and photonics industry depends on them for optical fibers, high-definition TVs, LCDs, batteries, lens-polishing compounds, and other products.

Under an agreement signed in August between the lab and Tennessee-based Oddello Industries, researchers will use a production line at an Oddello facility under construction to test a robotic disassembly technique that can remove the rare-earth magnets from the hard drives by punching them out, or through an ultra-high-speed fastener-removal system. The system will recover the magnets, their permalloy brackets, circuit boards, aluminum and steel, and it will also destroy data-storage media to ensure security.

The process recovers the magnets intact, enabling their direct reuse by hard-drive manufacturers or for use in motor assemblies, alternate uses through resizing or reshaping, or processing back to rare-earth metal.

Some 115 million hard drives are estimated to reach the end of their first useful life in 2016 alone. Currently, about 60% of those are refurbished and sold into secondary markets, 5% end up in landfills, and 35% are shredded because of data security concerns. The process for recycling and recovery will target that 35%, with the potential of recovering some 1000 metric tons of magnet material per year.

Rare-earth elements include scandium, yttrium, and the 15 lanthanides: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium.

They are important in making products perform with reduced weight, emissions, and energy consumption and/or provide greater durability, efficiency, speed, and thermal stability.


Optical and photonics technologies can ensure the safety of food, bring inexpensive and efficient alternative energy to rural and developing areas, enable instant communications, and otherwise bring tangible social, environmental, health, and economic gains to humanity.

Do you have a story to contribute about the role of light-based technologies in bettering the human condition?

Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

Read more articles and blog posts celebrating the many ways that optics and photonics are applied in creating a better world at PhotonicsForaBetterWorld.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201610.04

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