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Building a Crisis-proof Supply Chain for Rare Earth Magnets
Adapted snorkelling masks, unicorn-costumes, empty plastic bottles…people around the world have come up with a lot of creative ideas on how to address the recent lack of medical face masks. For the wider population, these alternatives may still offer a certain degree of protection. For medical staff dealing with infected patients on a day-to-day basis however, the temporary unavailability of certified equipment constitutes a serious problem.
The current COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated dramatically, how critical supply chain management and a constant flow of supplies is. And this does not just apply to medical equipment. Among others, car manufacturers have also stopped production, as material flows from countries strongly affected by the virus have slowed down. It has become apparent that our global supply chains are vulnerable and can be easily disrupted. In this context, SUSMAGPRO offers a solution. Within the project, a consortium of 19 European partners from academia and industry, coordinated by Pforzheim University, is working on developing a recycling supply chain for rare earth magnets and demonstrating the effective reuse of recycled material within several industries. The range of products includes motors ofelectric cars, water pumps, loudspeakers and wind turbines.
Already prior to the current crisis, the EU has created a list of critical raw materials, that are crucial to Europe’s economy and subject to significant supply risks. They are needed to produce everyday goods as well as modern technologies, guarantee job security in various industries and economic well-being, and yet they are not available in abundance. Among these are rare earth elements (REE), used to produce strong magnets, one of the most crucial components in industries such as automotive, aerospace, e-mobility, wind power and consumer goods. These magnets are essential for achieving the green energy transition and digital transformation of industries.
Despite their name, REE are not rare to find in nature, however, they are difficult to extract and mining causes significant environmental damage. Currently, only a fraction of EU demand is also met by EU production, while China is the main producer and exporter worldwide. In addition to mining, further steps of the production process are carried out there, including oxidation and refinement. Given these circumstances, it is questionable if the current REE supply chain can be considered crisis-proof and sustainable.
A crisis has a way of revealing weak spots. This may seem cruel at first, but it also presents an opportunity to re-organise, re-start and improve to create a better future. While we are momentarily facing a health crisis unprecedented in our modern times, we should not forget about climate change, another major challenge humanity is facing. The current standstill provides a huge chance to make a real change in this regard. And the first steps are being taken: In the European Parliament, an alliance has formed calling for a green recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to various environment ministers, it includes CEOs, business associations, NGOs, thinktanks, civil society groups and trade union representatives. They aim to place the European Green Deal at the heart of Europe’s economic activity, fighting for a green transition after the crisis.
Recycling RE magnets reduces waste, helps to protect the environment and recovers precious resources. On a larger scale, the SUSMAGPRO project shows that with collaboration, dedication and creative ideas, it is possible to develop a system that works for us and the planet and build a more sustainable and resilient future.
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