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The treasure trove hidden in discarded computers

BBC Technology 08 Jun 2020 11:05
By Nell Mackenzie Business reporter
Hard discs in recycling processImage copyright Hypromag

What do you do with an old hard disk drive, the kind that still spins up inside most PCs, once it reaches the end of its life?

If Allan Walton has his way, parts of it could soon be propelling your next car along the road, assuming you go electric.

The University of Birmingham professor is a director in the firm Hypromag, which extracts and recycles neodymium magnets from used hard disks.

Neodymium is a rare earth metal - chemical elements considered essential ingredients in many of today’s must-have technologies, from smartphones to TV screens. Neodymium is used, among other things, to make magnets that turn the motors that drive electric vehicles.

Prof Walton believes that in the next 10 years, his company could be recycling enough neodymium to meet a quarter of the UK’s demand - almost all of which is currently imported from China.

Once electric vehicles are assembled and running, they are broadly seen as being more environmentally friendly than cars with an internal combustion engine. But making magnets from rare earths is far from green.

Though processes needed to refine rare earths use many of the same chemicals found in oven cleaners and cosmetics, their waste can be destructive if not properly controlled.

Next to the mine itself is a tailing dam, a reservoir created by what is left over from separating rare earths.

However, rare earth minerals used in phones, hard drives and old wind turbines are generally lost.

Not only will the project offer a greener solution to the rare earths market, the global demand for these minerals means there is a business case to be built.

“We are missing a trick. There is no trouble finding rare earths, it’s the processing them into a useful material, like a magnet,” says Prof Walton.

It has received a £2.6m grant from Innovate UK and a half a million pounds of investment and further partnership from an African junior mine, Mkango.

Prof Walton believes that if Britain acts now and creates a scaled-up rare earths recycling industry, it could become a world leader.

Image copyright Getty Images

After 2025, the Netherlands will not sell petrol or diesel cars. The UK and France have pledged to meet this goal by 2040. This year, China aims for 12% of cars sold in the country to produce zero emissions.

The country corners the market because its companies can mine rare earths and process them locally into finished products. More than 70% of rare earth products are exported by China.

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And, its established supply chain offers them unmatchable discounts.

But while China exports processed products, the country’s natural resources are not rich in heavier types of rare earth that are most in demand, like the neodymium used for car magnets.

Image copyright Getty Images

“The US is one of China’s largest sources of rare earths and the Chinese are taking it for a song. It drives the Pentagon crazy,” he says.

  • Neodymium - permanent magnets used in cars and wind turbines
  • Erbium - fibre cables for high-speed broadband and lasers
  • Dysprosium - commercial lighting and also nuclear reactors
  • Cerium - glass polish, catalytic converters and oven cleaner
  • Yttrium and Terbium - weaponry including laser targeting and cruise missiles

Mr Higgins's firm is one of the only manufacturers outside of China to make and combine rare earth metals into alloys.

While environmental policy in China has improved, the largest mines were built before their implementation.

However, he adds that the country is beginning to wake up to the environmental impact of its rare earths industry.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused global assembly lines to grind to a halt. But it has also spurred manufacturers who use rare earths to question the global supply chain and their reliance on a single source country.

“People like me tell our government that any production that is concentrated in small places will be vulnerable to disruption,” says Mr Bloodworth.

On 13 May, legislation was put before US legislators, aimed at giving tax breaks to the industry - $50m in funding was also earmarked for start-up mines in the US.

In the UK, rare earths are integral to the government’s industrial strategy, according to Jeff Townsend, who this year set up a lobbying firm to represent the industry’s interests.

“Covid has knocked everyone sideways and lots of people are looking again at the way we do things,” says Mr Townsend.

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