OREANDA-NEWS. September 06, 2016. Prof Rex Harris from the University of Birmingham has a clever solution to extract rare earth from mobile phones. 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.

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. 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.

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 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.

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.