Last reviewed 14 May 2021

A new £4.3 million recycling plant is the UK’s latest response to the growing shortages of the rare earth metals and magnets that are used in almost all electrical and electronic devices.

The University of Birmingham, having been awarded funds by UKRI, will lead the development of the plant at Tyseley Energy Park, a centre for clean energy research. Aiming to galvanise the UK’s circular economy, this project will develop a recycling plant capable of recovering these valuable metals from, among other waste products, computer hard drives, loudspeakers, and electric vehicles.

High-capacity batteries and high-performance motors are especially reliant on the supply of rare earth metals, such as lithium, and rare earth magnets, such as neodymium. Electric cars, wind turbines, and other clean energy tech that governments need to reach their emissions targets all require these materials.

In partnership with Bentley Motors, the University of Birmingham will operate a scheme to reclaim rare earth magnets for hybrid and electric vehicles. Jon Bray, Research and Development Manager at the Office for Zero Emissions Vehicles (OZEV), said: “We are excited to be supporting this innovative project as part of our ambition to put the UK at the forefront of the design, manufacture and use of zero emission vehicles.”

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that technologies needed to cut greenhouse gases will require as much as six times more rare earth metals by 2040.

A recent EU-backed report on the future of critical raw materials recycling, argues that access to these materials is vulnerable to geopolitical issues and is calling on the Commission for mandatory recycling, to relieve the pressure on the markets. Right now, China is by far the world’s predominant supplier of metals like lithium and neodymium, meeting more than 90% of the global demand.

According to the EU report, there are sufficient quantities of critical raw materials such as hard disc and optical disc drives, batteries from WEEE and end-of-life vehicles, neodymium iron boron magnets from hard disc drives, fluorescent powders from cathode ray tubes and other end of life products to support recycling.