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SUSMAGPRO welcomes steps towards a European Circular Economy and promotes design for recycling

On 30th March, the European Commission (EC) has presented a package of new proposals to make sustainable products the norm and boost Europe's resource independence in line with European Green Deal. A set of rules building on and extending the existing Ecodesign Directive is meant to make a broad range of products more friendly to the environment, circular and energy efficient, addressing all actors along the value chain. 

SUSMAGPRO highly welcomes these steps towards a more circular economy in Europe, which are in line with the project objectives for critical raw materials used in permanent magnets, in particular the RE Neodymium and Dysprosium.

SUSMAGPRO addresses the establishment of a circular economy for RE magnets, which are an essential part of many products we use on a daily basis, e.g. washing machines or flatscreens. As components in products like water pumps, wind turbines and e-vehicles, they are also key to achieving the green transition. 18 European project partners from across the entire vlaue chain are developing solutions at pilot scale to identify and separate RE magnets from waste more easily and recover valuable RE, as well as to produce reliable recylced RE materials and magnets in more sustainable processes. The recycled magnets will be demonstrated in water pumps, loudspeakers and motors with manufacturers. Project partners also develop credible circular economy business models and strategies to counteract landfilling and unsustainable business-as-usual practices. 

However, the recycling process is not as straight-forward as it may seem, and project partners are facing a variety of challenges:

  • So far, no standard labelling system exists, which would give an indication of the weight of the magnetic materials, composition, binding structures and coatings used in a given End-of-Life (EoL) product, and thus faciliate the decision to recycle.

To address this challenge, project partners are dismantling a wide range of products, analysing the extracted material and classifying it for recyclability.  

  • In the project, partners use the patented Hydrogen Processing of Magnet Scrap (HPMS) to separate and purify RE in a shorter loop compared to conventional recycling methods, enabling direct production of tailor-made alloys and magnets. However, for the hydrogen reaction to work during the HPMS, the EoL magnet needs space to expand. If it is too tightly embedded in a component, this is not possible. The magnet needs to be extracted first, which can be a time-consuming process, making conventional chemical recycling routes more attractive, despite higher environmental costs.

This aspect shows that the recycling process actually start much earlier on in a product's lifecycle: it needs to be considered already in the design stage. To promote design for recycling, researchers in SUSMAGPRO pass on information on favourable design features for the product designers. In many cases, these features are likely to have added benefits in terms of ease of manufacture. 

  • The efficient disassembly of products for viable RE recovery constitutes another core issue related to product design.

Project partners have developed new automated sorting lines to identify, sort and extract RE magnets more efficiently from various EoL products, such as hard disk drives (HDD), flat screen TVs, pumps and motors. The process for HDD in particular has been developed in a way that combines material recovery with secure data destruction in a mobile, container-based unit that can be transported to e.g. server farms for on-site extraction of the magnet before shredding the HDD, thus meeting stringent EU data protection regulations. The focus of further pilot lines is now on mixed waste, to enable the easier collection of critical masses of waste entailing magnetic products and prevent shredding of smaller waste products. 

Amongst other products, project partners work on sub-systems found in cars. Laura Grau, research associate and PhD candidate at Pforzheim University states:

'Many current rotors of automotive tractions motors are not recyclable without excessing efforts. But these motors are likely to become the most abundant scrap source in the future, which means it isn't the question if or why we need designs suitable for efficient recycling, but when. While there is no deadline, looking at the (undoubtedly reasonable) plans of several governments for the electrification of individual traffic, it's quickly becoming clear that we need to act fast and manufacturers mustn't procrastinate to critically question and rethink some conventional designs. Our goal is to find what works and what doesn't from a recycling perspective, and support manufacturers in implementing these vital changes.'

SUSMAGPRO benefits from direct input and feedback from the industrial partners in its consortium, but also from external stakeholders. This enables faster replication and uptake of proposed solutions in further industries. The project will continue until the end of 2023, follow-up activities in the industry and in the frame of further projects have already been initiated.