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Imported and extracted with a high environmental impact, there is now a system able to recover these parts from electric cars.
A group of researchers from the Worcester’s Polytechnic University, Massachusetts, has discovered a new method to recover rare earth elements from discarded electric and hybrid vehicles. Scientists focused specifically on neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium. The aim is to recycle rare earth elements, otherwise extracted at very high economic and environmental costs, in a sustainable and efficient way.
To test the process, researchers dissected the guide unit (which contains the electric motor and transmission components) of an electric Chevrolet Spark and then ground the pieces. Using a two stage chemical extraction system, researchers have been able to recover rare earth metals and other recyclable materials, including steel chips.
According to the Polytechnic, this technology has the potential to create an alternative source for rare earth elements, which are almost entirely imported from China. The system could go beyond the sustainable mobility market, since magnets, which contain rare earth metals, are used in a wide range of technologies: apart from electric motors, they’re also used for wind turbines and medical devices.
“Over the past 20 years – explains Marion Emmert, one of the authors of the research – the United States has not invested in the industry and have lost knowledge and experience in extracting, recovering and separating these materials. We hope that now something may change and that the US will become less dependent on foreign countries”.
Worchester’s Polytechnic University submitted a patent application for the new technology and hopes to commercialize the system by finding a company prepared to invest.
The research began in spring 2014, when the Polytechnic University was the first in line to benefit of a fund of 7.4 million euros for universities. This sum was financed by the US army in order to develop new metallurgical methods and new light alloys to build more effective and lasting vehicles. Part of this research explored methods for extracting rare earth metals from minerals found out of China and for the recovery of these elements from recycled materials.