China has dominated the Rare Earth Element supply chain for decades. The U.S. is working to build out its own facilities, using more environmentally friendly manufacturing.
“The foreign dependency is real. It’s actually not getting better,” Noveon Magnetics CEO Scott Dunn said. “A lot of years and a lot of dollars have to really be invested in this space.”
Noveon Magnetics is helping increase domestic Rare Earth Magnet production with a sustainable shortcut.
“We sort of just bypass that entire chain. We take waste magnetic material directly into magnet manufacturing and deliver a finished product, which is really what the market needs,” Dunn said.
Less than 1% of the world’s Rare Earth Elements are recycled, with most ending up in landfills.
“Most of this material is discarded and really not recovered,” Dunn said. “It’s a little bit tough to handle. They exist in lower weight percentage compared to other metals that may be more available for recovery.”
Noveon is working to reverse the supply chain on China by using old magnets to manufacture new ones. Those will be used in things like cars, medical equipment and renewable power generation.
“We actually take apart motors and generators and things like that,” Dunn said. “Old hybrid vehicles can become magnetic material for new next generation hybrid vehicles.”
Recycling Rare Earth Magnets helps bypass several steps in a process that faces strict environmental regulations, including mining, separation and alloy manufacturing.
“The future of Texas and the United States should not depend on China. We must embrace innovation like Noveon to make Texas more self-reliant, to create our own products and to secure the Texas of tomorrow,” Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said during his State of the State address this year from Noveon’s factory floor.
Dunn moved his company from Delaware to Texas. He says the state has been good for manufacturing and believes more should be done to help U.S. companies increase production, as demand for magnets increases.
“Once upon a time, Rare Earth Magnets were really just an application that made sense for the hard disk drive,” Dunn said. “As we move further and forward towards, electric, high-tech, low carbon technology, the magnet is playing an increasing role in all of those technologies pretty much across the board.”
Mining company U.S. Critical Materials and the Idaho National Laboratory are focusing on filling the gap when it comes to another part of the Rare Earth supply chain.
“What we’re going to use is cutting edge technology,” U.S. Critical Materials Executive Chairman Edward Cowle said.
The Idaho National Laboratory is one of 17 Energy Department labs. It focuses on nuclear research, renewable energy and security solutions.
“China has a significant amount of not only production capacity, but separation, refining capacity,” Material Separations and Analysis Scientist Robert Fox said. “It’s not that we have to surpass them. We simply need to be able to fairly compete against the global monopoly.”
Scientists will spend eight months working to develop new, environmentally friendly ways to separate and process Rare Earth materials.
“The environmental laws have become more stringent over the years to maintain a clean and healthy and diverse environment,” Fox said. “We look at the environmental laws and say there are challenges to meet those stringent rules. How do we develop a technology that allows for resource recovery or manufacturing to be environmentally compliant?”
They will use ore from U.S. Critical Materials’ Sheep Creek Mine to develop the new refining techniques.
“We sent about 70 pounds of our ore to Idaho National Labs six months ago so that they can determine this was a project they could do,” Cowle said.
Sheep Creek is currently operating under an exploration permit. U.S. Critical Materials says the area has high amounts of Rare Earth Elements. The company hopes to request a drilling permit next year and fast-track the permitting process.
Coal often contains a variety of Rare Earth Elements. The Energy Department has invested millions in projects that will establish manufacturing to separate the Rare Earths from more than 250 billion tons of coal reserves.
“The role that those materials play in our energy future is significant,” Dunn said. “I think America is capable of more and more of that as long as some of the right political and economic incentive is addressed.”