In 2019, those shares published a report identifying a range of potential strategies, including erasing and reusing entire hard disk drives, removing and reusing magnet assemblies, grinding old hard disk magnets and using powder to produce new ones, and removing purified rare earth elements from shredded drives. Each of these strategies has its challenges – manually removing magnet assemblies requires a lot of work; extracting rare earths from technology can be chemically or energy intensive and produce significant waste — and in order for any of them to increase, it needs to be purchased from a number of actors in global supply chains.
Even relatively small supply chain adjustments are needed to place used or recycled rare earth magnets in new plants “difficult,” Jin said. “And especially when you have to start small with new technology.”
Still, some companies have begun to take the first steps. In 2018, Google, Seagate hard drive maker and electronics restorer Recontext (formerly Teleplan) conducted a small demonstration project that included removing magnet assemblies from six hard drive drives and installing them in new Seagate drives. This demonstration, Frost says, was the “catalyst” for a larger 2019 study in which 6,100 magnetic circuits were pulled from Seagate hard drives in Google’s data center before being inserted into new hard drives at Seagate’s manufacturing facility. Frost, who led the study for 2019, believes that this is the largest demonstration of this kind ever made.
The results, which will be published in the next issue of the magazine Resources, conservation and recycling, have not only shown that magnets from rare countries can be collected and reused on a larger scale, but that it has significant environmental benefits. Overall, the reusable magnet assemblies had a carbon footprint 86 percent smaller than the new ones, according to the study. Frost says this estimate conservatively took into account the energy mix of the local power grid in which the data center operated. Considering Google’s near-day-to-day renewable energy consumption on this data center, the carbon footprint of reused magnets was even smaller.
Google declined to say if there were any follow-up projects in preparation, but Grista directed it accordingly. publicly announced goal developing a scalable rare earth magnet recycling process. Ines Sousa, Google’s supplier of environmental impact programs and co-author of the new study, says there are several challenges that still need to be overcome before this can be achieved.
These include the need for exceptional cleanliness during magnet recycling, “since modern hard drives are very sensitive to small particles,” and the fact that hard drives are constantly changing, resulting in a new magnet design every few years.
“There is a possibility that the design of the magnet will become constant between generations so that the reuse process can be increased,” Sousa said.
Seagate spokesman Greg Belloni told Grist that the company was “committed to solving the complexity” of recycling rare earths in “close cooperation with customers”. Another of its customers, computer maker Dell, is exploring a different approach to recycling.
In 2019, Dell launched a pilot program using Seagate and Recontext to collect magnets from hard computers (collected through Dell’s return program), shredding, extracting rare earths, and using them to make new magnets. To this day, some £ 19,000 rare earth magnets were collected for recycling by this collaboration. The project “remains a pilot program as we continue to look for ways to expand within our own operations,” Dell spokesman Mel Derome told Grist.
While it may be years before rare country magnets are massively recycled by any approach, the Biden administration could help speed up these efforts. Through the Institute for Critical Materials at the Ames National Laboratory, the federal government is already funding several projects focused on developing cleaner and more efficient processes for recycling rare earth elements from magnets. Recently supply chain resilience strengthening report, administration officials wrote that 4,000 U.S. government data centers represent a “short-term opportunity” to collect rare country magnets using this type of federal-funded research and development.