Recycling permanent magnets for rare earths

Source: The post is based on the article Recycling permanent magnets for rare earths published in the Business Standard on 31st May 2023 

Syllabus: GS 3 – Changes in industrial policy and their effects on industrial growth.

Relevance: About rare earth permanent magnets.

News: Recently, the PM has inaugurated India’s first facility to produce rare earth permanent magnets in Visakhapatnam. The plant is based on indigenous reduction-diffusion technology and produces samarium-cobalt (SaCo) rare earth permanent magnets and neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) permanent magnets. 

What is the significance of the Vishakapatnam rare earth permanent magnets plant for India?

The supply chain of rare earths is one of the biggest concerns because China has the highest concentration of rare earth metals which gives it a huge strategic leverage. Therefore, setting up a production facility for permanent magnets in India is a significant step as it will safeguard India from any supply chain disruption. 

Moreover, India’s Make in India initiative has given a boost in the electronics, defence, and aerospace sectors, which has led to an increase in the demand for rare earth permanent magnets. 

Since India is an importer of these metals, setting up such kinds of plants will cater India’s domestic demand while reducing its reliance on China. 

Why is the production of rare earth permanent magnets important?

Rare earth permanent magnets have a wide-range applications in electronics, automobiles, the military, etc. These are also used in new technologies like hypersonic weapons and directed energy systems. 

Compared to ordinary ferrous magnets, rare earth permanent magnets generate a very high magnetic field strength and large amounts of torque. This makes them ideal for applications requiring high-performance, compact and light-weight motors. 

Moreover, a rare earth permanent magnet also has nearly 30 percent of rare earth metals by weight. Recycling them can further benefit India in catering rare earth metal demand. 

How will recycling rare earth permanent magnets benefit India?

According to a report of the United Nations, India was the third-largest country in e-waste generation in 2019. The e-waste generation is expected to increase further in the coming years.  As these permanent magnets contain rare earth metals, recycling them would help in catering to domestic rare earth metal demand in India. 

Given the large amount of e-waste generated in India, recycling them would provide rare earth metals much more than the quantities imported currently. 

Must Read: Rare Earth Elements: Strategic Importance and Reducing Import Dependence – Explained 

What are the concerns present with e-waste collection and recycling? 

E-waste collection and recycling in India suffer from several institutional and management weaknesses. 

Only about 22% of the e-waste generated is collected while the recycling technology employed is primitive and it is mostly about scavenging precious metals like gold and silver. Therefore, improving e-waste collection requires a behavioural change in society 

Must read: India’s e-waste challenge – Explained, pointwise

What can be the way ahead?

India does not have a recycling plant for permanent magnets. To address this issue, companies from friendly nations can be incentivised to set up recycling facilities in India while efforts can be taken to develop indigenous technology simultaneously. Moreover, recycling plants should adhere to environmental norms as well. 

Note: Neodymium and Dysprosium are two elements required to make permanent magnets, which also contain rare earth metals in it. 

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