Everywhere you look – electronic products abound, where individual consumers to businesses own a range of electronics. According to a PACE study by the World Economic Forum, the projected number of electronic devices and equipment could be between 25-50 billion by 2020, as users continually seek updated devices and equipment (forecasts predict almost 7 connected devices per global consumer, not including all other devices). A closer look at these electronic products reveals the prevalence of magnetic materials underpinning them, primarily made from rare earth materials. The most commonly used rare-earth magnet is the neodymium magnet (also known as NdFeB, NIB, or the Neo magnet). Neo magnets are used in almost everything, from an MRI machine at your nearby hospital to the hard drive you have at home, and its demand will only continue to increase.
A grave drawback of these amazing electronics in everyday use is the e-waste generated, representing 70% of the hazardous waste in landfills, painfully including precious metals and rare earth materials. In one year alone, Global E-Waste Monitor estimates about 40 of the approximately 45 million metric tons of e-waste are discarded in ways not considering recovery, reprocessing and reuse. Predominantly harvested in China, these rare earth materials, notably neodymium, regretfully end up in landfills or another suboptimal location. Furthermore, from the moment neodymium and other precious metals entered the earth’s surface, they were already polluting and expensive to mine. Yet this urban waste presents an unexpected and welcomed raw materials source, making these rare-earth magnets an interesting circular economy proposition, as the Urban Mining Company (UMC) discovered in 2013.
Replacing the mine-surface-waste model, the Urban Mining Company harvests neo magnets from the ‘urban mine’- all types of urban e-waste that have reached their end-of-life, abundantly found in scrap rather than the conventional methods of mining. UMC estimates the cumulative ‘urban mine’ reserve will be greater than 600,000 tons, out of which less than 1% of rare earths are being recovered. HEV/EV vehicles and hard disk drives are examples of potential long-term sources of neo magnets in urban areas.
The concentration of magnets in urban mines is not only substantially different, requiring minimal resource inputs, but 48% more efficient than traditional producers of sintered neo magnets. Urban Mining Company’s process creates recycled magnets with an even greater resistance to demagnetization, and minimizes waste generated. Overall, the UMC approach reduces the number of steps needed to create a fully dense NdFeB magnet at lower financial costs and environmental impacts, while recycling 100% of the waste magnets and concurrently recovering 97% of rare earths.
From a circular economy perspective, urban mining for neo magnets provides a sustainable opportunity for minimizing waste, while employing ways to continuously use scarce resources.
As the re-manufacturing infrastructure and recycling systems continues to evolve and shift more towards a circular economy, industrial and manufacturing companies like UMC are well-positioned to shape the space of urban mining for neo magnets. Although relatively new, the opportunities for re-manufacturing neo magnets enables a wide range of stakeholders to consider a proven alternative to extracting natural resources with looming scarcity and shortages in the near future.