Belfast magnet recycling plant gets £1.7m government grant

  • In Science
  • 2022-09-27 15:14:41Z
  • By BBC
Hand on magnets
Hand on magnets  

A Belfast company has received a £1.72m grant from the government to develop a magnet recycling plant.

Magnets are used in various tech items, including smart phones, electric cars and MRI machines.

SerenTech is one of just a few magnet recycling plants outside China.

The company began as a spinout from Queen's University in 2015 and currently has 11 full-time staff. It hopes to expand its workforce with 25 more jobs next year.

Professor Peter Nockemann from Queen's University said it is more sustainable to recycle existing magnets than to create new ones by mining ores.

"We're talking about rare earth metals that are very energy intensive, very wasteful in the whole process and so if we recycle these metals we produce less waste, and use up less energy," he said.

"The magnets come, for example, from car manufacturers at the end of life. They can be recycled and go back into these cars, so that's the whole supply chain.

"Windmills contain 1.5 tonnes of these magnets so it's very critical for the energy transition towards net zero that these magnets actually get recycled.

"Our technology brings them back to virgin magnets so they have the same lifespan and the same efficiency as new magnets.

"However recycling has its own challenges, it's also very energy intensive, it produces waste.

"That's where we developed new technology; at QUB laboratories we came up with a method to very efficiently separate the metals based on an ionic liquid technology."

Scaling up

The grant from the UK Government Advanced Propulsion Centre will allow SerenTech to increase its productivity.

Prof Nockemann said: "This is 10 years of research and development that allows to transition from this pilot scale which means kilograms of magnets to be recycled, to multiple tonnes recycling - that's the next step to do this on an industrial scale.

"That would be something which is absolutely unique in Europe and worldwide."

Professor Peter Nockemann
Professor Peter Nockemann  

Andrew Holmes, director of SerenTech, said the grant "validates the significance of magnet recycling in a tight supply market".

"This is a tremendous endorsement from the UK government and the APC on the potential for scaling our technology offering from SerenTech," he said.

"The team has been busy setting a platform to accelerate from the pilot scale studies at Queen's University Belfast, and now relocation to a new commercial facility in Belfast, where a demonstration scale 30 tonne per annum magnet recycling circuit can be housed.

"The scale of the proposed demonstration plant will prepare the ground for further product development with industry partners."

Mr Holmes said the importance of recycling is expected to increase dramatically over the next few years as the energy transition away from carbon gathers momentum.


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