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Google data centre wizards wrestle with recycling hard drives

The date of: 2021-08-13
viewed: 3

source:Nationa Observer

At a laboratory inside a Google data centre in Mayes County, Okla., researchers spent the fall of 2019 disassembling old hard disk drives by hand in order to extract a two-inch-long component known as the magnet assembly. Consisting of two powerful rare earth magnets, the magnet assembly is a critical muscle within the hard drive, controlling an actuator arm that allows the device to read and write data.

Over the course of six weeks, the scientists harvested 6,100 of these magnetic muscles, all of them effectively good as new. The magnets were then shipped to a hard drive manufacturing facility in Thailand, where they were placed into new drives and, eventually, redeployed to data centres around the world.

This is a far cry from what happens to the estimated 22 million hard disk drives that age out of North American data centres each year. Typically, when a data centre operator swaps out old drives for new ones — as they do every three to five years — the discarded drives are unceremoniously shredded. The rare earth elements, which took significant energy and resources to mine and turn into magnets, are lost in a sea of aluminum scrap.

But for several years, Google and others in the tech industry have been quietly working to change that. Motivated by concerns about future rare earth metal supply shortages as well as the environmental toll of rare earth mining, which casts a cloud over their green credentials, tech companies, along with partners in academia and government, are exploring whether they can mine hard drives instead. Until now, these efforts have garnered little public attention. But they may get a boost under the Biden administration, which recently flagged government data centre hard drives as a promising source of the rare earth elements America needs not just for data storage devices and consumer electronics, but also for energy technologies that are key to fighting climate change.

“Hard drive magnets are important because they contain neodymium and dysprosium, which are essential for electric vehicles and wind turbines,” Hongyue Jin, a scientist at the University of Arizona who studies rare earth recycling, told Grist. Of the 17 different rare earth elements, “these two are currently the most important and critical.”




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