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Interview with Dr. Matthias Buchert, Division Manager at Oeko-Institut

To the recycling of rare earths for the automation technology

The unstable supply situation regarding rare earths is turning recycling of rare earths into a topic. Scientifically researching this topic and advising decision-makers belong to the core competences of the Oeko-Institut. Dr. Matthias Buchert, Head of the Division Infrastructure & Enterprises at Oeko-Institut in Darmstadt, presents up-to-date developments with the recycling of rare earths that are especially applied to the automation technology.

What is the status of the recycling of rare earths?

September 3rd, 2012 - Generally it is still in its infancy. The recycling of rare earths from used products, so-called end-of-life-products, is going toward zero. There are first steps to recycle rare earths from remainders incurring with extraction or production.

Dr. Matthias Buchert, Oeko Institute.
Dr. Matthias Buchert

Permanent magnets for example contain rare earths as well known. Producing magnets causes grinding debris still including well 30% of rare earths. That is the reason why one is trying to recycle rare earths from this grinding debris.


This recycling of grinding debris takes place primarily in China because most magnets are produced there. The manufacturing plants outside of China mainly in Japan or the European Union deliver their grinding debris for recycling to China.


The fact that recycling is still hardly developed has its causes in the past. Before 2007 the prices of rare earths were relatively low, their use happened still in certain way wastefully and finally know-how lacked in recycling. So there was still no reason for recycling rare earths. The today's status is accordingly undeveloped.

Which suggestions are there for recycling of permanent magnets?

Rare earths in motors.
Foto: Siemens

For this purpose there is the research project MORE in Germany. This abbreviation stands for Motor Recycling (the project title in full is: Recycling of Components and Strategic Metals from Electrical Traction Drives). The project is sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research based on the r3-program and consists of a consortium of industry and research.


Focus is thereby the permanent magnets in synchronous motors. These motors are used as servo drives in the automation technology as well as in electrical and hybrid vehicles. The latter contain about 1 - 2 kg of magnets per vehicle. The proportion of rare earth metals in the permanent magnets of the synchronous motors is approximately 30%.


This research project is investigating different approaches for recycling: Recuperation of the magnets by dismounting from old motors, recuperation of the alloys of the rare earth metals, recuperation of these metals from pre-sorted and shredded material. Anyway, the total value chain of the synchronous motors is considered.


This research project has been operating for one year and its results are to be presented in 2014. The consortium consists of Siemens, Daimler, the Belgian company Umicore, the Vacuumschmelze at Hanau, Germany, the University Erlangen, the Clausthal University of Technology, the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research and the Oeko- Institut in Darmstadt.

What about the recycling of rare earths from batteries?

Recycling of rare earths in Honda cars.
Also in Japan there are activities to recycle rare earths from batteries. Source:

There is a research cooperation for recycling nickel metal hydride batteries or rechargeable batteries used for domestic purposes but also for electrical and hybrid vehicles with higher performances. Small batteries for domestic purposes e.g. of the size AAA contain 1 gram and batteries of hybrid vehicles 2 kilogram of rare earth metals.


Operators of this research project are the two companies Umicore from Belgium and Rhodia from France. In the new recycling plant for batteries of Umicore at Hoboken nickel, cobalt, iron and copper are separated from the rare earth metals by a high-temperature technique and transferred then into a slag. From this slag Rhodia then is to recover the rare earth metals by a demanding chemical procedure. Umicore is the world-wide leading precious and special metal recycling company, Rhodia provides huge experiences in processing of rare earths.


Rhodia belongs to the Solvay Group and manufactures among other things luminescent materials. Rhodia is involved as mentioned in the recycling of rare earths and has developed a technology “MorningStar” which reduces the use of terbium, a rare earth metal.

What could be a practical approach of recycling permanent magnets?

First transparency must be ensured which input materials had been used.


Recycling of rare earths can apply to the repair of servo motors. It is crucial to separate rare earths before the scrap iron or steel recycling otherwise they will disappear in the steel cycle.


With the recycling of the precious metals platinum and palladium from industrial catalysts the business-to-business-approach has been proving successful. That means components with the materials, which are to be recycled, are redelivered from the end-user directly to the manufacturer who provides then the recycling.


Such a lean logistics for recycling might also be built up for servo motors from the industrial sector on an international level.

Which approach for recycling may promise the largest benefit?

That is a multilateral approaching pursuing several ways in parallel.


The research must be pushed on as with the recycling project MORE


In addition the recycling ratios with the end-of-life-products must be increased, i.e. establishing of recycling plants possibly promoted by credits at reduced rates of interest. With the recycling we will need success for some years until the recycling ratio increases from currently almost zero to two, three or four per cent. That will be the most difficult step. Then the pace will noticeably be faster.


Furthermore the research for the substitution of rare earths is going on in particular of dysprosium because this element presents the largest future bottleneck.


Finally both resource efficiency and recycling must already be involved with the extraction or production of rare earths. More details provide the "Eight-Point-Plan for an Efficient Recycling of Rare Earths" that was published by the Oeko-Institut at the beginning of 2011.

Dr. Buchert, thank you for the interview.


The interview with Dr. Buchert conducted Thomas Quest.

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Logo Oeko Institute.

The Oeko-Institut is a leading European research and consulting institute working for a sustainable future.

At the German locations in Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin 150 people are employed.

The Oeko-Institut is a non-profit association and finances its work particularly from third-party, project-based funding.

The Institute researches and advises to resource efficiency, material stream, circular flow economy, recycling and provides ecobalances.


Dr. Matthias Buchert is Head of the Division Infrastructure & Enterprises in Darmstadt, Germany.

He has published among others:

< Study on Rare Earths and Their Recycling

< Recycling critical raw materials from waste electronic equipment

< Are electrical vehicles the mode of the future? Potentials and environmental impacts

< Resource efficiency and resource-policy aspects of the electro-mobility system - Results