The Japan-based conglomerate Hitachi Ltd. has announced what it claims is an efficient method to recycle rare earth metals from hard disk drives and air conditioner compressors. According to a Hitachi release, over the past several years many users of rare earth metals have expressed concern that China’s monopoly of the materials could leave them without an adequate supply of the metals. At the present time, Hitachi notes, China controls more than 97 percent of the global rare earth production.
The company says that it expects to have the system fully operational by 2013. When operational, Hitachi hopes to meet around 10 percent of its rare earth metal needs through the recycling of hard disk drives (HDD) and compressors.
According to the company, the new device will be able to separate and recycle 100 rare earth magnets from HDDs per hour, eight times faster than the manual method presently employed to extract the material from HDDs and compressors.
In a release noting its breakthrough, Hitachi says that traditionally extracting rare earth metals required the use of chemicals such as acids, which created potential environmental problems with the wastewater generated. Hitachi’s new method extracts rare earth metals through a dry method. The company says that this method will both reduce the cost and environmental impact of the recycling procedure.
The company also said it has developed more efficient cutting and demagnetizing equipment, which the company says should make it easier to dismantle compressors and extract rare earth magnets.
Rare earths refer to a group of 17 metal elements, including lanthanum, cerium and neodymium, used in manufacturing a range of materials, including helicopter blades, missiles, hybrids and disk drives and air conditioners. Japan is the world’s biggest user of the metals.