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The hidden treasure in discarded computers

The date of: 2020-06-10
viewed: 2

source:Up News Info (press release)

What do you do with an old hard drive, the type that still spins inside most PCs, once it reaches the end of its useful life?

If Allan Walton gets his way, parts of him could soon propel his next car along the way, assuming it goes electric.

The University of Birmingham professor is director of the Hypromag firm, which extracts and recycles neodymium magnets from used hard drives.

Neodymium is a rare earth metal: Chemicals are considered essential ingredients in many of today's must-have technologies, from smartphones to TV screens. Neodymium is used, among other things, to make magnets that spin the motors that drive electric vehicles.

Professor Walton believes that in the next 10 years, his company could be recycling enough neodymium to meet a quarter of UK demand, almost all of which is currently imported from China.

Once electric vehicles are assembled and run, they are considered more environmentally friendly than cars with an internal combustion engine. But making rare earth magnets is far from green.


The disk drive portion is hydrogen plated, revealing the valuable neodymium.

Although the processes necessary to refine rare earths use many of the same chemicals found in furnace cleaners and cosmetics, their wastes can be destructive if not properly controlled.

At a mining site, Bayan Obo in Inner Mongolia, they have contributed to a vast toxic lake.

Next to the mine itself is a tailings dam, a deposit created by what remains to separate the rare earths.

Steel and aluminum already have large recycling programs in place that help reduce chemical processing.

However, rare earth minerals used in telephones, hard drives, and old wind turbines are generally lost.

Four years ago at the University of Birmingham, Professor Walton and his mentor, Professor Rex Harris, discovered that running hydrogen gas through old hard drives converts magnets to powder that can be harvested, repackaged and coated, to become new magnets.

The project will not only offer a greener solution for the rare earth market, but the global demand for these minerals means there is a business case to build.

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'We are missing a trick. There is no problem finding rare earths, it is processing them into a useful material, like a magnet, 'says Professor Walton.

This year Hypromag expects to announce a deal with British car company Bentley.

It has received a £ 2.6m grant from Innovate UK and £ 500m investment and a new partnership from an African junior mine, Mkango.

However, the Hypromag solution will only meet a fraction of the growing demand for rare earths, which analysts say will double by 2025.

Professor Walton believes that if Britain acts now and creates an expanded rare earth recycling industry, it could become a world leader.

The opportunity is huge, with many emerging technologies, such as 5G, demanding rare earths, in addition to the growing need for established technologies such as telephones, microprocessors, and wind turbines.

However, the main reason why rare earths have been compared to oil, are government policies that will fuel the demand for electric vehicles.

After 2025, the Netherlands will not sell gasoline or diesel cars. The UK and France have pledged to meet this target by 2040. This year, China aims for 12% of cars sold in the country to produce zero emissions.

When it comes to the production of rare earths and magnets made from them, China is the world leader.

The country corners the market because its companies can mine rare earths and process them locally into finished products. More than 70% of rare earth products are exported by China.

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