What is the fate of hard drives in old computers, which still rotate inside most computers, after the computer has expired?
And if Alan Walton made his way and succeeded in his project, parts of it might be the engine for your next car in the near future, if we assume that your next car will work on electricity.
Walton is a professor at the University of Birmingham and director of the “Hyperomag” company which extracts and recycles neodymium metal from used hard drives.
Neodymium is a rare mineral extracted from the underground. Chemical elements are essential components of many technologies that are indispensable today, from smartphones to television. Neodymium, along with other things, is also used to create a magnet that drives the engines that drive electric vehicles.
Walton believes that over the next ten years, his company will be able to recycle enough neodymium to meet a quarter of the UK’s demand. Most of this mineral is currently imported from China.
Electric cars are more environmentally friendly than cars with conventional engines. But the process of creating a magnet from a rare metal is far from an environmentally friendly process.
Although rare metal purification processes require many chemicals found in oven cleaners and cosmetics, the waste from the process may be destructive if not disposed of properly.
In one of the mines located in Bayan Obo, Mongolia, this process resulted in a huge lake of toxic substances. Next to the mine itself is a dam behind which a lake of separating rare metals is reserved.
Steel and aluminum are largely recycled around the world, helping to reduce chemical processing. But the rare metals used in phones, hard drives, and old wind turbines are generally wasted.
Professor Walton and his supervisor, Rex Harris, at the University of Birmingham four years ago, discovered that passing hydrogen gas through old hard drives drives the magnet into a powder that can be used, reconstituted, and coated. To become a new magnet.
Great investment opportunity
The project will not only provide a more environmentally friendly solution in the rare mineral market, but rather means that as long as there is a global demand for these minerals, there is an opportunity for a successful business.
“There’s no problem finding a rare mineral,” Walton says. “Rather, it is about processing it to turn it into a useful substance, like a magnet.”
Hypromag expects this year to announce a deal with British automaker Bentley.
The company has received a grant of 2.6 million pounds from the British government creativity, and half a million pounds in the form of investments and partnerships with the African mango mine.
Despite all this, the solution offered by the company will cover only a small portion of the increasing demand for rare metals, which will double by 2025, according to experts.
Walton believes that if Britain moved now and created a rare metal recycling industry, it could become a world leader.
There is a huge opportunity now that many new technologies such as “5G” require rare metals, in addition to the growing need for the currently prevailing technologies such as mobile phones, microprocessors and wind turbines.
But the main reason for connecting rare metals to oil is the government’s policies that will increase the demand for electric cars.
After 2025, the Netherlands will not sell cars that run on gasoline or diesel. The United Kingdom and France have also pledged to achieve this goal by 2040. China aims to sell 12% of cars that do not release any emissions this year.
China is a world leader in the production of rare metals and the magnets made from them. Monopolizing the market; Because their companies can extract rare metals and treat them locally; To convert them into final products, it exports more than 70% of rare metal products in the world.
The rare metal industry is among the items in Chinas 2025 industrial plan. To become the world’s leading manufacturing country.
It is true that China exports industrial products, but the country is not rich in heavy natural minerals such as neodymium used in car magnets, the demand for which is increasing day by day.
China imports most of the neodymium it needs from Burma and the United States, says Christopher Ecclestone, a strategist at the Holgarten mining company.
The Mountain Pass mine in California sells all of its production of rare minerals exclusively to China, with part of the mine ownership owned by Shanghai Resources, which owns 9.9% of the mine.
“The United States is one of Chinas largest sources of rare metals, and the Chinese are buying them at the lowest prices,” Ecclestone says. “This is what drives the madness of the Pentagon.”
What made China dominate the market is that rare metals are a by-product of long-running mines, says Ian Higgins, director of the less-common minerals company headquartered near Liverpool.
Other rare minerals and their uses
Neodymium is used in the manufacture of magnets for automotive and wind turbines.
Erbium, is a manufacturer of optical fiber cables used in the Internet and laser beams.
Dysprosium, used in all types of lighting devices as well as nuclear reactors.
Cerium is used in the manufacture of glass polishing materials and oven cleaners.
Yttrium and Terbium enter the arms industry including lasers and winged missiles.
Higgins is among the few companies outside China that manufacture rare metals and produce mixtures thereof.
Higgins notes that the Chinese mines are subsidized by the Chinese government and receive financial support from them and their accounting procedures are largely vague.
It is true that Chinas environmental policy has improved, but the largest mines were built before this policy came into effect.
According to Hingis: “There are a lot of companies dealing with rare metals, which is horrific, as well as a lot of smuggling of these minerals through the black markets and unlicensed companies to import rare precious metals, but the government has begun to pay attention to the devastating environmental impact of the rare metal industry.”
The Covid-19 pandemic caused global assembly lines to stop. But it also allowed manufacturers that use scarce metals to bring up the debate on the global supply chain and rely on one source.
According to Andrew Bloodworth, director of the British Geological Survey, the Corona crisis has prompted governments and companies to “focus on local resources.”
“People like me say to our government that any production that is confined to small places will be subject to stopping,” says Bloodworth.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe are trying to build supply chains for rare metals outside China.
On May 13, the legislation was presented to US lawmakers, with the goal of granting tax exemptions to the industry and $ 50 million was allocated; To finance the construction of new mines in the United States.
In the European Union, the “Horizon 2020” fund launched an initiative to build a supply chain across many European and North Sea countries, including Britain.
In the UK, rare metals are an integral part of the government’s industrial strategy, according to Jeff Townsend, who this year set up a public relations firm; To represent the interests of this industry.
“The government needs to understand more and do more than just lay down a major industrial strategic vision. It must engage in action and provide a supply chain.”
“The Corona virus has had a negative effect on everyone, and many are watching the way we do things again,” says Townsend.
He added: “If we make the decision to be better, we must try to be better, because this is the only way we will change society.”