An Ex-ante LCA Study of Rare Earth Extraction from NdFeB Magnet Scrap Using Molten Salt Electrolysis
A new recycling process for the extraction of rare earths from neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) magnet scrap is being developed, based on the direct extraction of rare earths from end-of-life magnet material in a molten fluoride electrolysis bath. Rare earths are required in their metallic form for the production of new NdFeB magnets, and the suggested process achieves this through a single step. The process is being developed on a laboratory scale and has been proven to work in principle. It is expected to be environmentally beneficial when compared to longer processing routes. Conducting life cycle assessment at R&D stage can provide valuable information to help steer process development into an environmentally favorable direction. We conducted a life cycle assessment study to provide a quantitative estimate of the impacts associated with the process being developed and to compare the prospective impacts against those of the current state-of-the-art technology. The comparison of this recycling route with primary production shows that the recycling process has the potential for much lower process-specific impacts when compared against the current rare earth primary production route. The study also highlights that perfluorocarbon emissions, which occur during primary rare earth production, warrant further investigation.