Essential for manufacturing high-tech products, rare earth metals are in short supply, but EU-funded research is investigating how to extract and recycle rare earth magnets from EV motors.
Rare earth metals account for almost a third of the weight of magnets in electric vehicle (EV) motors. Although this is thought to be their largest use, they are also needed for camera and telescope lenses, aircraft engines, welding and glass-making visors, X-ray and MRI scanners, televisions and computer screens.
The Horizon 2020-funded DEMETER project is developing innovative ways of obtaining rare earths from industrial waste, as well as environmentally friendly methods of extracting them.
Co-ordinator Koen Binnemans of the University of Leuven in Belgium, said: “Although rare earths are, surprisingly, not particularly scarce, they are difficult to refine and take many days to produce as pure elements. Suitable concentrations are only found in ores that have to be mined.”
One DEMETER project recycles rare earth magnets by absorption of hydrogen into the material, which makes it crumble into a powder.
In others, ionic liquids, which are salts in liquid form that emit no harmful components, are being developed to extract rare earths.
Magnet production from recycled materials is being investigated using a process called spark plasma sintering, which allows fast compacting of magnetic powders into dense solids at low temperatures.
DEMETER received funding from the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme.