UK university to research recycling supply chain for luxury car brand

The University of Birmingham is starting a rare earth magnet recycling project to find a source of rare earth magnets for Bentley Motors’ electric and hybrid vehicles.

February 18, 2021

U.K.’s University of Birmingham has announced a three-year research project with London-based Bentley Motors to deliver a sustainable source of rare earth magnets for electric and hybrid vehicles for the luxury car brand. The 2.6 million pound (or about $3.6 million) rare earth recycling for electric machines (RaRE) project is funded by the U.K.’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) and delivered in partnership with Innovate UK, the nation’s innovation agency. According to a news release from the university, the project involves six partners who will work together to establish the first end-to-end supply chain of recycled rare earth magnets in the UK.

The university reports that rare earth magnets are found in almost every appliance that uses electricity to generate motion, and in the last 30 years, their use has increased. Although they are increasingly important in the transition to a low-carbon economy, the University of Birmingham reports that fewer than 1 percent of these magnets are recycled.

The project will build on a technology developed by University of Birmingham Professor Allan Walton and Professor Emeritus Rex Harris of the school’s Magnetic Materials Group, a research group focused on processing and recycling permanent rare earth magnetic materials. The technology, called Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap (HPMS), extracts rare earth metals from scrap electronics by breaking them into a powder that is easily separated from remaining components.

The technology was patented by the University of Birmingham Enterprise and then licensed to HyProMag Ltd., a company that was set up by the school’s researchers. HyProMag has since received investment from Mkango Resources, which will be funding HyProMag’s contribution to the RaRE project, according to the University of Birmingham.

The project will develop a process to recycle magnets extracted from computer hard drives to make rare earth magnets for use in bespoke ancillary motors and will involve HyProMag scaling up the recycling techniques developed at the University of Birmingham. The university says it will also provide cast alloys, which HyProMag will blend with secondary materials in order to produce the “sintered” magnets, which are formed by press moulding the metal powders.

“RaRE is an exciting project and a fantastic opportunity,” says Nick Mann, operations general manager at HyProMag. “HyProMag’s recycling technologies allow us to produce [Neodymium or NdFeB] magnets with a much lower embedded carbon cost than using virgin supply and with independence from Chinese supply and we are working closely with our major shareholder Mkango Resources to further grow the business. We are proud to be working with established, innovative and renowned companies in the RaRE project with whom we can showcase the technologies of the RaRE project as a whole—recycled magnets being used for cutting edge products in a prestige application.”

In addition to the university, Bentley and HyProMag, other partners in the RaRE project include Unipart Powertrain Applications Ltd., which will lead the development of manufacturing scale-up routes to ensure facilities and processes defined are suitable for volume automotive manufacture; Advanced Electric Machines Research Ltd., which is leading on the design and development of the motors; and Intelligent Lifecycle Solutions Ltd., which will preprocess computer hard disk drives to remove rare earth magnet-containing components from the materials, which will be shipped to HyProMag for recycling.