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US team recovers rare earths from electric and hybrid vehicle motors

01 October 2015

US researchers have developed a method of chemically separating rare earths from the drive units of discarded electric and hybrid vehicles.

Marion Emmert with the drive unit from an all-electric Chevrolet Spark vehicle (photo: Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

Two researchers - Marion Emmert, an assistant professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and postdoctoral fellow Dhammika Bandarahave - have developed a method of extracting rare earths from the drive units and motors of discarded electric and hybrid cars.

They have created a novel method for processing drive units and electric motors to chemically separate rare earth elements - specifically neodymium, dysprosium, and praseodymium - from other materials used to make the devices. The goal is to recycle rare earths that would otherwise be lost in a sustainable and efficient manner.

To test the process, the WPI researchers sliced the drive unit (which contains the electric motor and other components of the drive train) of an all-electric Chevrolet Spark vehicle into several pieces and then shredded the pieces. Using a two-step chemical extraction process, they were able to separate the rare earth elements and also recover other recyclable materials, including steel chips and other useful materials from the drive units.

The researchers say the technology has the potential to be an alternative source of rare earths, which could lessen the need to import these vital elements from China, which currently supply's about 97 percent of rare earths used in manufacturing.

Furthermore, since magnets containing rare earths are used in a wide range of technologies, including electric motors, wind turbines, and medical imaging devices, including MRI scanners - manufacturers would be able to improve the sustainability of their products by recycling these materials.

WPI's Intellectual Property and Innovation department has filed a provisional patent on the recovery technology, and is beginning to market the technology in hopes of finding a licensee.

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