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Recycling could account for 25% of rare earths market in 10 years: Mkango CEO

Highlights

Mkango boosts participation in UK recycling venture

Recycled magnets produced with 88% energy savings

Recycling seen attractive option for market expansion outside China

Recycled material could potentially account for as much as 25% of the rare earths magnets market, but it may take some 10 years to achieve this, according to the CEO of a rare earths mine project developer.

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"Less than 5% of rare earths magnets are recycled at the moment," William Dawes, CEO of Mkango Resources, a company listed in both Canada and the UK, told S&P Global Platts in an interview. Design for recycling is crucial in this respect, he said.

The market for neodymium and praseodymium oxide – two key rare earths products used in magnets for electric vehicle motors and wind turbines – currently totals some 60,000 mt/year, with the vast majority of product processing occurring in China, Dawes said.

The geopolitics of the rare earths market, dominated by China not only for mine and processing production but consumption too, means there should be "great opportunities" for recycling in other locations in future, according to Dawes.

Mkango plans to develop a rare earths mine project in Malawi and a processing plant in Poland to start up in 2024. It is also partnering with HyProMag, a hydrogen-based rare earths magnets recycling venture which uses a technology developed by the University of Birmingham in the UK, considered a center of excellence in magnetic materials studies. The venture is partly funded by the UK government's Innovate UK scheme.

Mkango announced Nov. 3 that it has increased its participation in HyProMag to 41.6% from the previous 25%, in what appears to be a vote of confidence in the future of rare earths recycling. The initial 25% stake was taken at a cost of Eur300,000 ($411,000), Dawes said.

"This is a business where we see very significant growth opportunities," Dawes said. "The majors in the rare earths sector are now starting to talk about recycling and we're pleased to be pioneering in this area, unlocking the supply chain for recycling of rare earth magnets."

Collaboration with EMR on loudspeakers

HyProMag recycles rare earths including from loudspeakers, which represents about 20% of the rare earths market worldwide. The project is collaborating with European Metal Recycling (EMR), the largest automotive recycler in the UK, which is sourcing loudspeakers mainly from cars and flat screen TVs.

A demonstration plant is being scaled up at HyProMag to produce around 30 mt/year of recycled magnets for 2022, establishing what could eventually be "a meaningful part of the solution for the UK's rare earths supply chain," according to Dawes. The recycled products have potential to be "very competitive" as they can be produced using 88% less energy than magnets using virgin materials, he said. The UK has no domestic source of primary rare earths.

Rare earths recycling is based on recycling end-of-life components and of swarf debris produced in factories, which derives largely from China.

In platinum group metals, recycling mainly of catalytic converters now represents about 25% of the market, and this has taken about 10 years to evolve to this level, Dawes said.