Rare metals such as neodymium and dysprosium are key materials in many green technologies such as generators that store power in wind turbines, and the electric motors that propel electric and hybrid cars. Currently China supplies the entire world with the products and demand is currently increasing much faster than production. Forecasts show that as early as next year, these metals will be hard to come by, SINTEF says.
The project’s aim is to extract valuable materials from the waste streams. The challenges lie in the fact that the material must be sufficiently clean in order to be recycled, and recyclers have to be sure that it is not contaminated by other harmful materials, according to project coordinator SINTEF.
Researchers are therefore focusing much of their work on finding out which products could contain pollutants, which methods are best for analyzing and measuring the content of the polluted materials, and when such products can be expected to be found in waste.
The program is using two groups of material technologies in the race to find good analytical and extraction methods. The approach chosen by the researchers involves a technology well-known from the aluminium and smelting industry.
On the basis of tests, SINTEF researchers believe that the electrolysis technology used in aluminium plants can be used to recycle magnetic alloys from discarded magnets and scrap material from magnet manufacturers. It will take some time before there are enough scrap eco-cars to be able to recycle their motors, which is why they are turning to the magnet manufacturers for the magnetic alloys.
However, the process is still slow, and there is a lot of work still to be done before the researchers will know whether they will be able to achieve their goal. If they are successful, they will have found a method that is much simpler than alternative processes based on the use of strong acids, SINTEF says.
The 7 research institutes included in the project are Fraunhofer, CEA, TNO, VTT, SINTEF, Tecnalia and SP.
Researchers may have already found a way to recycle rare earth elements from wastewater. Scientists described the process in the Oct. 9 issue of the journal ACSApplied Materials & Interfaces.