Researchers sport system to pull rare earth materials from used hard drives

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Oddello Industries plan system that will recycle hard drives for rare earth material

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Open and easy access to rare earth materials -- which are critical parts of electronics in everything from cars to computers -- is still more a dream than reality.

One of the ways to address that anxiety is to harvest and reuse such material from used electronic components – in particular computer hard drives.

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Such recycling is part of a program announced recently by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Oddello Industries LLC that will recycle hard drives by using a prototype system to sort and align hard drives on a conveyer for processing.

The technique uses a mapping station with barcode scanning and a coordinate measuring machine to populate a database of each make of hard drive so they may be positioned for correct robotic disassembly, according to ONRL. Lab and industrial testing will explore two methods for magnet recovery: ultra-high-speed fastener removal and punching.

“The system will recover the magnets, their permalloy brackets, circuit boards, aluminum and steel, and also destroys data storage media to ensure security,” according to ONRL. “The process recovers the magnets intact, enabling their direct reuse by hard drive manufacturers or for use in motor assemblies, alternate uses through resizing or reshaping, or processing back to rare earth metal.”

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And the supply for this recycling effort is definitely there. Some 115 million hard drives will reach the end of their first useful life in 2016 alone. Currently, about 60 percent of those are refurbished and sold into secondary markets, 5% end up in landfills, and 35% are shredded because of data security concerns. The process for recycling and recovery will target that 35%, with the potential of recovering some 1,000 metric tons of magnet material per year, said Tim McIntyre, program manager in ORNL’s Electrical and Electronics Systems Research Division and the project lead in a statement.

The recycling method “can give you magnets that are already made, compared to digging up the ore and all the processing and expense required to get to the end product,” said McIntyre.

The need for a recycling answer to at least some of the world’s demands for rare earth material is obvious, for example, more than 95% of worldwide production of neodymium occurs outside the United States. Rare earth materials include 17 elements with names such as lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, yttrium and scandium. 

Although the U.S. does not produce much neodymium, it does have vast sources of used consumer products from which to recover magnets made from rare earth elements, ONRL said. How to do so economically on a large scale is the question researchers at ONRL are looking at and will test on a production line under construction at an Oddello facility in Morristown, Tennessee.

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