DOE researchers develop energy-efficient, cost-effective process to extract rare earth elements from scrapped magnets
Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and colleagues have developed a process to extract rare earth elements from the scrapped magnets of used hard drives and other sources. They have patented and scaled-up the process in lab demonstrations and are working with ORNL’s licensee Momentum Technologies to scale the process further to produce commercial batches of rare earth oxides.
In 2017, Momentum Technologies licensed ORNL’s 3D-printed magnet technology and plans to produce the first 3D-printed magnet made from recycled materials.
We have developed an energy-efficient, cost-effective, environmentally friendly process to recover high-value critical materials. It’s an improvement over traditional processes, which require facilities with a large footprint, high capital and operating costs and a large amount of waste generated.—co-inventor Ramesh Bhave, who leads the membrane technologies team in ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division
Through the patented process, magnets are dissolved in nitric acid, and the solution is continuously fed through a module supporting polymer membranes. The membranes contain porous hollow fibers with an extractant that creates a selective barrier and lets only rare earth elements pass through.
The rare-earth-rich solution collected on the other side is further processed to yield rare earth oxides at purities exceeding 99.5%.
Typically, 70% of a permanent magnet is iron, which is not a rare earth element.
We are essentially able to eliminate iron completely and recover only rare earths.—Ramesh Bhave
Extracting desirable elements without co-extracting undesirable ones means less waste is created that will need downstream treatment and disposal.
Supporters of the work include DOE’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) for separations research and DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) for process scale-up.
ORNL is a founding team member of CMI, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by DOE’s Ames Laboratory and managed by the Advanced Manufacturing Office. Bhave’s “mining” of an acidic solution with selective membranes joins other promising CMI technologies for recovering rare earths, including a simple process that crushes and treats magnets and an acid-free alternative.
No commercialized process currently recycles pure rare earth elements from electronic-waste magnets. That’s a huge missed opportunity considering 2.2 billion personal computers, tablets and mobile phones are expected to ship worldwide in 2019, according to Gartner.
Bhave’s project, which began in 2013, is a team effort. John Klaehn and Eric Peterson of DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory collaborated in an early phase of the research focused on chemistry, and Ananth Iyer, a professor at Purdue University, later assessed the technical and economic feasibility of scale-up.
At ORNL, former postdoctoral fellows Daejin Kim and Vishwanath Deshmane studied separations process development and scale-up, respectively. Bhave’s current ORNL team, comprising Dale Adcock, Pranathi Gangavarapu, Syed Islam, Larry Powell and Priyesh Wagh, focuses on scaling up the process and working with industry partners who will commercialize the technology.
To ensure rare earths could be recovered across a wide spectrum of feedstocks, researchers subjected magnets of varying composition—from sources including hard drives, magnetic resonance imaging machines, cell phones and hybrid cars—to the process.
Most rare earth elements are lanthanides, elements with atomic numbers between 57 and 71 in the periodic table.
ORNL’s tremendous expertise in lanthanide chemistry gave us a huge jump start. We started looking at lanthanide chemistries and ways by which lanthanides are selectively extracted.—Ramesh Bhave
Over two years, the researchers tailored membrane chemistry to optimize recovery of rare earths. Now, their process recovers more than 97% of the rare earth elements.
To date Bhave’s recycling project has resulted in a patent and two publications documenting recovery of three rare earth elements—neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium—as a mixture of oxides.
The second phase of separations began in July 2018 with an effort to separate dysprosium from neodymium and praseodymium. A mixture of the three oxides sells for $50 a kilogram. If dysprosium could be separated from the mixture, its oxide could be sold for five times as much.
The program’s second phase will also explore if ORNL’s underlying process for separating rare earths can be developed for separating other in-demand elements from lithium ion batteries.
The expected high growth of electric vehicles is going to require a tremendous amount of lithium and cobalt.—Ramesh Bhave
Industrial efforts needed to deploy the ORNL process into the marketplace, funded over two years by DOE’s OTT Technology Commercialization Fund, began in February 2019.
The goal is to recover hundreds of kilograms of rare earth oxides each month and validate, verify and certify that manufacturers could use the recycled materials to make magnets equivalent to those made with virgin materials.
DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, part of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, funded this research through the CMI, which was established to diversify supply, develop substitutes, improve reuse and recycling and conduct crosscutting research of critical materials. ORNL has provided strategic direction for these areas since CMI began in 2013. This includes providing leaders for focus areas and projects that led to new innovations in aluminum-cerium alloys and magnet recycling.
US Patent Nº 9,968,887 “Membrane assisted solvent extraction for rare earth element recovery”
Daejin Kim, Lawrence Powell, Lætitia H. Delmau, Eric S. Peterson, Jim Herchenroeder & Ramesh R. Bhave (2016) “A supported liquid membrane system for the selective recovery of rare earth elements from neodymium-based permanent magnets,” Separation Science and Technology, 51:10, 1716-1726, doi: 10.1080/01496395.2016.1171782
Daejin Kim, Lawrence E. Powell, Lætitia H. Delmau, Eric S. Peterson, Jim Herchenroeder, and Ramesh R. Bhave (2015) “Selective Extraction of Rare Earth Elements from Permanent Magnet Scraps with Membrane Solvent Extraction” Environmental Science & Technology 49 (16), 9452-9459 doi: 10.1021/acs.est.5b01306