Newswise – An innovative method of recycling rare earth elements from electronic waste has gone commercial. A team of researchers from the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a U.S. Department of Energy innovation center led by the Ames Laboratory, has developed a new way to extract rare earth elements (rare earths) strong magnets in electronic waste (e-waste). Recently, TdVib LLC, a Boone, Iowa-based company, signed a licensing agreement for the technology with the Iowa State University Research Foundation, which manages patenting and technology transfer activities for the Ames Lab.
Rare earth are essential ingredients in the magnets that power many of the technologies people rely on today, such as cell phones, computers, electric vehicles and wind turbines. Since 1990, supplies of these elements have become limited and recycling them is a way to address their limited availability.
Ikenna Nlebedim, the recycling project‘s lead researcher, explained that big companies destroy things like computer hard drives to protect the information they contain. Once the discs are crushed, recycling becomes more complex because other recycling methods depend on separating the magnets from other materials. CMI’s recycling process is designed to extract rare earths directly from shredded electronic waste.
“We take this shredded mixture and put it into solution, but our solution targets the magnet — and leaves the rest of the components of the mixture undissolved — and dissolves the magnet that contains the rare earths,” Nlebedim said. “So with the rare earth in solution, we filter out the rest of the e-waste and later remove the rare earth from the solution. And that’s how we do our recycling. It is a very efficient and robust process.
This recycling technology has an advantage over other processes because the solution used to dissolve the magnets is water-based rather than acid-based. Nlebedim explained that their process starts out acid-free and by-products are processed to remove acid-contaminated waste, making it more environmentally friendly.
Other recycling processes involve heating e-waste to temperatures above 600 degrees Fahrenheit to demagnetize the magnets. The CMI process does not require preheating, resulting in reduced pollution and energy consumption.
Denis Prodius, co-inventor of the technology, said: “The acid-free dissolution has all the essential characteristics for sustainable recycling. It is environmentally friendly, has demonstrated economic potential and efficiently recovers high purity products suitable for commercial applications.
Since the solution used in this process is copper-based, the processed e-waste ends up being infused with copper. This copper can be recovered or reused in other operations. Copper is the key to making the process economically viable and environmentally friendly.
“The dissolving process leaves other materials in the e-waste intact, allowing others to extract materials such as gold and platinum from the remaining materials,” said Technical Project Manager Kevin Stoll. of TdVib.
Another important aspect of the technology is its scalability. Scaling processes from the lab to larger operations often leads to unexpected problems. However, according to Dan Bina, President and CEO of TdVib, scaling has improved this process.
“It is typical for efficiency to decrease when scaling up new processes, but we observed the opposite with the acid-free dissolution process, without compromising purity,” Bina said. “We have increased the rare earth leaching efficiency of magnets in shredded hard drives from approximately 70% achieved in laboratory research to 90% at our facility. For pre-concentrated magnets, the dissolution efficiency may exceed 98%.
Nlebedim and Prodius have been working on the technology for a few years. The licensing to TdVib LLC is the final step in its progression from laboratory to commercialization. The company first obtained a phase I and then a phase II Technology transfer to small businesses (STTR). STTR is a program that encourages small businesses to pursue federal research and development with commercialization potential.
The objective of phase II, which is underway, is to produce three to five tonnes of rare earth oxide within one to two years.
“The technology holds great promise in addressing the limited availability of rare earths for technology applications in the United States,” said CMI Director Thomas Lograsso. “This promise has earned it R&D 100 awards, a Federal Laboratory Consortium award, and a TechConnect Innovation award.”
CMI is working to create new clean technologies for US industries, like the one involved in this partnership with TdVib.
the Institute of Critical Materials is a Department of Energy Innovation Center led by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Office of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. , collaborations, research and development, technical assistance and workforce training. CMI seeks ways to eliminate and reduce dependence on rare earth metals and other materials critical to the success of clean energy technologies.
Ames Laboratory is a US Department of Energy Science Office National laboratory operated by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and cross-disciplinary collaborations to solve global problems.
Ames Laboratory is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic physical science research in the United States and works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.