As the United States seeks a stable domestic supply of rare-earth elements – essential to high-tech instruments and electronics – researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are looking to the salvage yard to see what might be lurking under the hoods and in the doors of light-duty cars and trucks.
Rare-earth elements (REEs) are not scarce but scattered, meaning they typically can’t be found in economically exploitable concentrations. They have become increasingly sought after, however, since they are used in high-strength magnets, electric motors, and consumer goods like laptops, tablets and cellphones. A single smartphone can contain nine rare-earth elements alone.
Ruby Nguyen and Devin Imholte both specialize in supply chain analysis for INL and the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), an Energy Innovation Hub funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. In CMI’s first five years, there was a focused effort on computer hard disk drives to quantify what REEs could be recovered from the magnets inside them. Working with counterparts within INL and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the research indicated that recovering REEs from hard drives would meet less than 1 percent of global magnet demand.
With rising sales of plug-in electric and hybrid electric vehicles, the focus has shifted to the automotive industry. Nguyen and Imholte proposed to study rare-earth metals in autos after reading a Frost & Sullivan market analysis of transportation and industrial motors.
They contacted a number of salvage yards, eventually coming to an arrangement with James Boone of Intermountain Auto Recycling in nearby Rigby, Idaho. He also operates a business in Idaho Falls called iPull, specializing in parts. Intermountain buys about five vehicles a day at auctions and from insurance companies and repair shops.
Working with Imholte and Nguyen, Boone will find the vehicle they want to examine and strip it down to parts, which he sells at cost to INL. These are sent to the INL Research Center (IRC) to be disassembled. The disassembled magnets are sent to the Center for Advanced Energy Studies for analysis.
Determining the actual amount of REEs in vehicles is a challenge because REEs are used in small quantities across different types of components. Alternators, which supply a steady charge to a vehicle’s electrical system, are not a main source of REEs, Imholte said. In fact, none of the alternators in any of the disassembled vehicles have contained magnets.
Magnets in conventional cars and trucks are generally used in devices that require high torque and back-and-forth motion. These include the motors that power windshield wipers, air-conditioning blower motors, engine cooling fans, seat motors, and power steering motors. And the speakers use neodymium in their magnets.
Inventorying the components taken from a 2010 Ford F-150 truck, Nguyen and Imholte found 120 grams of magnet alloy containing 30 grams of neodymium in the front-door speakers. Neodymium magnets were also found in front-door speakers of a 2011 Chevy Silverado at a smaller amount: 16 grams with 4 grams of neodymium. In the 22 components across 17 different applications, the researchers found lower amounts of REEs than the literature indicated they should expect.
Considering the time involved — removing the components took iPull two-and-a-half hours, getting the magnets out of them took 11 hours at IRC — cost will be an issue in any recovery efforts. Nguyen and Imholte have since turned their attention to a 2009 Toyota Corolla. “We’re eager to learn if the results from a sedan are different from a truck,” Nguyen said. After that, they have lined up a 2012 Honda Accord.
“Nobody is doing this nuts-and-bolts disassembly on U.S. automobiles like we are,” Imholte said. “We’re really just starting to look at REE consumption in this way.”
Several factors could change the game as the study progresses. After a sharp drop in 2012, some REEs experienced a steady price rebound due to the expansion of electric vehicles and the renewable energy industry. Prices for neodymium and praseodymium soared more than 50 percent in 2017.
Analysts at Argonaut Ltd. estimate that use of magnets in electric vehicles and wind turbines will cause demand for neodymium and praseodymium to increase almost 250 percent over the next 10 years. Electric vehicles use roughly 1 kilogram more rare-earth oxides than conventional internal combustion cars, according to their research. Adamas Intelligence sees demand for magnet-oriented rare-earth oxides increasing to $6.07 billion by 2025, representing a compound annual growth rate of 17.4 percent from $1.44 billion in 2016.
“The use of permanent magnet motors in new electric vehicle designs released in 2018 will be an interesting area to watch,” David Merriman, deputy manager for Roskill Information Services’ minor metals division, told Rare Earth Investing News in December 2017. “If more and more manufacturers switch to rare earth permanent magnet designs, demand will undoubtedly follow.”
Update: Results of this research have been published in the journal Waste Management.