Recycling technologies developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are poised to expand the US availability of rare earth metals used in magnets and lasers, which in turn will provide an economic boost to the energy, transportation and communications industries.
Rare earth materials — particularly the elements neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr) and dysprosium (Dy) — are needed for a wide range of applications. From hard-disk drives alone, it is estimated that more than 10,000 tons of scrap permanent magnets containing Nd, Pr and Dy are available for recycling. But less than 1% of rare earth magnets are being recycled because of the high cost, low efficiency and environmental hazards of conventional processing technologies.
ORNL’s success in partnering with Dallas-based Momentum Technologies to commercialize its recycling processes has significant implications for the US, which has limited sources — mostly non-domestic — for rare earth elements. Commercialization of ORNL’s extraction and separation technologies will help expand US access to these materials, opening a new door to domestic manufacturing of permanent magnets.
It will also help to improve the nation’s supply of rare earth elements that are essential for clean energy technologies such as wind turbines, electric vehicles, efficient lighting and advanced batteries.
Working within the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) at the Department of Energy (DOE), ORNL researchers developed a novel simplified process that eliminates many of the barriers to electronics recycling. The single-step process for recovering rare earth elements from scrap magnets is more environmentally friendly than current methods and has the potential to be a more cost-effective approach while achieving the purification levels necessary for industry adoption.
The single-step process for recovering rare earth elements from scrap magnets is more environmentally friendly than current methods and has the potential to be a more cost-effective approach while achieving the purification levels necessary for industry adoption.
ORNL’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) licensed this technology to Momentum in 2016 and continued its support during the commercialization process. After the successful development of two prototypes, Momentum and ORNL collaborated to win a grant from the DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF). Under the TCF project, Momentum and ORNL worked to achieve pilot-scale production capabilities by fall 2019.
Momentum also licensed a second, complementary technology from ORNL in 2019 — a process to separate the lighter rare earth elements (such as Nd and Pr) from the heavier ones (such as Dy), which are more valuable. A mixture of the three rare earth oxides sells for $50 a kilogram; separating Dy from Nd and Pr enables its oxide to be sold for five times as much.
This second license has co-exclusive terms, limiting the competitive landscape to allow Momentum to attract investors while enabling ORNL to license to up to two additional companies, maximizing technology deployment.
At the time of the submission of this award application, Momentum Technologies and ORNL were demonstrating to key industry players that the start-up now has the capability to recover and separate rare earth materials from scrap magnets on a commercial scale.
View their press release here.
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