The Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Momentum Technologies have signed a nonexclusive licensing agreement for an ORNL process that has been designed to recover rare earth magnets from used computer hard drives.
The process was developed as part of DOE's Critical Materials Institute (CMI). It has been designed to recover large amounts of magnets made using neodymium -- a rare earth element that is mined outside the United States. The permanent magnets can be used in everything from computer hard drives and cellphones to clean energy technologies such as electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Currently, about 35 percent of used hard drives are shredded in the United States in light of data security concerns. Timothy McIntyre, project lead and program manager in ORNL’s Electrical and Electronics Systems Research Division, says these drives could result in the recovery of about 1,000 metric tons of magnet material per year.
ORNL's highly automated process for recovering magnets employs a system to sort and align hard drives on a conveyor for processing. The method uses a mapping station with bar code scanning and a coordinate measuring machine to populate a database of each make of hard drive so they may be positioned for correct robotic disassembly.
The process is designed to recover the magnets, their permalloy brackets, circuit boards, aluminum and steel, while automatically destroying data storage media to ensure security.
The magnets may then be directly reused by hard drive manufacturers or in motor assemblies, used in other applications through resizing or reshaping or processed back to rare earth metal. The recycling method can be adapted to target other consumer goods containing rare earth magnets, such as used electric motors, appliances and heating and air conditioning systems, ORNL says.
Dallas-based Momentum Technologies is focused on extraction of rare earth elements and other materials from hard drives for recycling and direct reuse.
Momentum holds a separate license for ORNL's membrane extraction technology, which uses a combination of hollow fiber membranes, organic solvents and neutral extractants to selectively recover rare earth elements such as neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium.
“Working collectively with the nation's brightest scientific minds we can now provide a solution to some of the most complex problems in the rare earth element supply chain,” says Preston Bryant, Momentum CEO. “Bringing together these CMI technologies allows us to create a sustainable business model, something that many rare earth companies struggle to achieve.”
“Hard disk drives are the second-biggest use of neodymium magnets, and they are the most readily available source for recycling,” says CMI Director Alex King. “This technology overcomes one of the biggest challenges to cost-effective recovery of magnets from them, and we are delighted to be working with Momentum Technologies to commercialize it.”