In 2019, these stakeholders published a report identify a multitude of potential strategies, including wiping and reusing entire hard drives, removing and reusing magnet assemblies, grinding old hard drive magnets, and using the powder to make new ones new, and the extraction of purified rare earth elements from shredded discs. Each of these strategies has its own challenges: removing magnet assemblies by hand is labor intensive; Rare earth mining technology can be chemical or energy intensive and produce significant waste.
Making even the relatively minor supply chain adjustments necessary to place used or recycled rare earth magnets inside new discs “is difficult,” Jin said. “And especially when you have to start from a small amount with new technology.”
However, some companies have started to take the first steps. In 2018, Google, hard drive maker Seagate, and electronics renovator Recontext (formerly Teleplan) conducted a small demo project that involved removing magnetic arrays from six hard drives and placing them in new Seagate drives. This demonstration, according to Frost, was the “catalyst” for the larger 2019 study in which 6,100 magnet assemblies were extracted from Seagate hard drives in a Google data center before being inserted into new drives. drives in a Seagate manufacturing plant. Frost, who led the 2019 study, believes this is the largest such demonstration ever.
the results, which will be published in a future issue of the journal Resources, conservation and recycling, not only showed that rare earth magnets could be harvested and reused on a larger scale, but that there were significant environmental benefits to doing so. Overall, reused magnet assemblies had an 86% lower carbon footprint than new ones, according to the study. Frost says this estimate conservatively took into account the energy mix of the local power grid where the data center was operating. Considering Google’s almost 24-hour renewable energy consumption at this particular data center, the carbon footprint of reused magnets was even smaller.
Google declined to say if it had any ongoing follow-up projects, but directed Grist to his publicly announced goal to develop an evolutionary process for recycling rare earth magnets. Ines Sousa, head of the supplier environmental impact program at Google and co-author of the new study, says there are still some challenges to overcome before this becomes a reality.
These include the need for extreme cleanliness when recycling magnets “because modern hard drives are very sensitive to small particles” and the fact that hard drives are constantly changing, resulting in new magnet designs every day. a few years.
“There is an opportunity to make the design of magnets constant between generations so that the process of reuse can evolve,” Sousa said.
Seagate spokesperson Greg Belloni told Grist the company is “committed to working to solve the complexity” of rare earth recycling in “close collaboration with customers.” Another of his clients, computer maker Dell, is exploring another approach to recycling.
In 2019, Dell launched a pilot program with Seagate and Recontext to salvage magnets from computer hard drives (collected through a Dell trade-in program), crush them, mine rare earths, and use them to make new magnets. To date, some 19,000 pounds rare earth magnets were collected to be recycled through this collaboration. The project “remains a pilot program as we continue to look for ways to evolve within our own operations,” Dell spokesman Mel Derome told Grist.
While it may be years before rare earth magnets are recycled en masse by any approach, the Biden administration could help accelerate those efforts. Through the Critical Materials Institute at Ames National Laboratory, the federal government is already funding several projects focused on the development of cleaner and more efficient processes for recycling rare earth elements from magnets. In a recent supply chain resilience building report, administration officials wrote that the 4,000 data centers operated by the US government represent a “short-term opportunity” to harvest rare earth magnets using this type of federally funded research and development.