Recycling innovation makes gadgets a little bit greener

Earth magnet
Image caption A rare earth magnet turns to powder as it is exposed to hydrogen

Scientists in Birmingham have found a new way to recycle the very important metals found in almost every type of modern technology.

A breakthrough that could have a huge implications for the tech industry.

Magnets made of "rare earth metals" are a vital part of almost every gadget from mobile phones to computer hard drives.

But most of the world's supply of rare earth metals is found in China. So being able to recycle them wouldn't just be greener it would also secure companies a new source of essential materials that would be outside the control of the Chinese government.

Impossible to recycle

Traditional ways of recycling are pretty destructive.

You tear apart your gadget and then sift through what's left looking for the bits your want.

Image caption The team at the University of Birmingham get ready to recycle and recover rare earth magnets

The problem with rare earth magnets is as soon as you start the shredding the magnet will just shatter and then stick to any bits of metal it can find.

The end result is tiny chunks of rare earth metals that are just impossible to retrieve from the mess.

But not always

But Prof Rex Harris from the University of Birmingham has a clever solution to all this.

Years ago, he discovered if you pass hydrogen over a rare earth magnet the magnet expands and the turns into a powder. Usefully the resulting powder isn't magnetic at all. It doesn't stick to anything.

Now for a long time this was just an interesting fact about an interesting group of elements. But as rare earths grew to become such a key part of modern life it became apparent this interesting fact could be the secret to recycling them.

And Dr Alan Walton and his team at the University of Birmingham have now managed to recycle rare earths on a scale where industry have begun to take notice.

Hard drives

At this stage the researchers have been focusing on computer hard drives. We already recycle about 100 million of these a year, mainly to get at the aluminium they contain.

Image caption The drum full of computer hard drive corners ready for recycling

The rare earths, because they just stick to everything, are impossible to recover.

But as part of this work a robot has been created that can identify the corner of each hard drive where the 25g of rare earth magnets are buried and then saw it off.

You then put the corners into a big drum (which actually comes from a washing machine!) and pass hydrogen gas over them. The rare earth magnets turn to powder and since they are no longer magnetic when you tumble the drum out drops all the powder.

The end result can then be made back into the first ever recycled rare earth magnets.

Not just greener

All of this has been proved to work on a commercial scale, so the hope is to get companies interested in the technology and using it within the next year or so. As well as being greener and cutting waste this also offers firms a new revenue stream.

Of course the other benefit is it offers a useful source of rare earth metals from outside China. People have in the past said rare earths are the oil of the twenty first century and China have built a hugely dominate position in the industry. This would offer an alternative.

Finally, like much of the research I talk about this is a huge project that involves lots of different scientists, companies and groups right across Europe.