One hurdle to acquiring permanent, rare earth magnets is their environmental and economic cost. Mining for elements like neodymium can be difficult, and this relative inaccessibility creates higher prices, especially since much of the mining is completed overseas. Complicating things even further, permanent magnets have also been difficult to recycle, especially because they’re typically used deep inside other products, which makes them hard to access. 

But recycling neodymium and other magnetic materials just got easier. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute has developed a way to recycle one of the biggest sources of used magnets in electronic waste: computer hard drives. This development could pave the way to economical magnet choices for businesses and manufacturers alike, especially since hard drives are relatively easy to access.

The Process

Here’s how it works: Recyclers collect the hard drive magnets (which are usually made from powerful neodymium), then remove any protective coatings, which are usually made of nickel or zinc. With the coating out of the way, they crush the magnets into a powder. This powder is then sprayed via a plasma torch onto a substrate, where a new, thin magnet is built layer by layer. Even better: By adjusting the plasma torch, one can customize the properties of the resulting magnet, potentially making a magnet stronger or weaker or with higher heat resistance.

As a bonus, researchers say this process reduces the typical steps required in recycling magnets from electronic waste, which produces large quantities of unwanted by-products. Instead, the researchers go right from the powder to a usable product. Of course, it would be wise to apply a new layer of nickel or zinc to increase the new magnet’s durability.

Pros and Cons of Recycled Magnets

At the moment, the resulting magnets are not nearly as strong as their predecessors. In fact, a new, traditionally-manufactured neodymium magnet will be significantly stronger than a neodymium magnet of similar size that’s just been created through this manufacturing process. However, these recycled magnets may still perform a valuable function, especially in applications where weaker ferrite magnets won’t suffice.

On the plus side, these rare-earth magnets will be much cheaper to manufacture and purchase than earth-mined magnets, and they’re still strong enough for use in small hand-held electronics that require thin magnets, like cell phones.

Rare Earth Magnets Today

It may take a few years until this recycling process scales to the point where the magnets they produce will become commercially accessible. In the meantime, you can rely on high-strength rare earth magnets from Apex Magnets. We offer an extensive selection of magnets perfect for hundreds of applications. Not sure what you need? Contact our helpful sales staff for recommendations.