Extracting and recycling vital metals


Essential for manufacturing high-tech products, rare earth metals are in short supply. EU-funded research is investigating how to extract rare earth magnets from electric vehicle motors and recycle them, in a move that could also create jobs in Europe’s materials sector.

Rare earths account for almost a third of the weight of magnets in electric vehicle motors. While this is thought to be their single largest use, they are also needed for camera and telescope lenses, catalytic converters, aircraft engines, welding and glassmaking visors, X-ray and MRI scanners, televisions and computer screens.

Of all raw materials critical to the functioning of Europe’s economy, rare earths are at greatest risk of supply interruption. Were this to happen, the effects would be severe, with many industries hit and major job losses. Long-term supply can only be guaranteed through a combination of large-scale recycling and primary mining from new rare earth mines outside of China.

The EU-funded DEMETER project is developing innovative ways of obtaining rare earths from industrial waste, as well as environmentally friendly methods of extracting them. It is also designing motors in which magnets are arranged so as to make them easier to recycle.

DEMETER comprises 15 different projects carried out by PhD students at institutions around Europe and researchers employed by industrial partners. The results have the potential for rapid application in the circular economy, with life-cycle assessments performed to quantify their environmental impact.

Koen Binnemans, Coordinator ETN DEMETER

“Although rare earths are, surprisingly, not particularly scarce, they are difficult to refine and take many days to produce as pure elements. Suitable concentrations are only found in ores that have to be mined,” says coordinator Koen Binnemans of the University of Leuven in Belgium.

“The other problem is that deposits aren’t evenly distributed. Roughly 96 % of production is controlled by China. A workable strategy for recycling the huge quantities imported into Europe since the 1980s will have far-reaching economic and social benefits in terms of more skilled jobs in Europe’s materials sector and increased employment security.”

Innovative recycling

One DEMETER project recycles rare earth magnets by absorption of hydrogen into the material, which makes it crumble into a powder. In others, ionic liquids, which are salts in liquid form that emit no harmful components, are being developed to extract rare earths. Magnet production from recycled materials is being investigated using a process called spark plasma sintering. This allows fast compacting of magnetic powders into dense solids at low temperatures.

New motor designs are based on claws that hold magnets in place during the motor’s lifetime and make them easy to remove afterwards. Industrial partners have already commercialised some of the results for the automotive sector and recycling of iron- and cobalt-based magnets.

Training network

A secondments scheme allows DEMETER’s researchers to conduct research and receive training at different institutions. Academic researchers spend time in industry, where they see how their work can influence developments and gain experience of solving real-world problems. Industry-based researchers have spells at universities, where they explore their ideas and use state-of-the-art equipment.

“DEMETER is fundamentally a training network. Researchers are trained in a variety of techniques related to permanent magnets in electric vehicles,” says Binnemans.

“There are summer schools and training on skills such as management, intellectual property rights, writing proposals and scientific articles, communication and entrepreneurship. Every six months, events bring all researchers and supervisors together to exchange findings, describe progress and share experiences of working as part of a network.”

DEMETER received funding from the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme.


Project details

  • Project acronym: DEMETER
  • Participants: Belgium (Coordinator), Slovenia, UK, France, Denmark
  • Project N°: 674973
  • Total costs: € 3 802 512
  • EU contribution: € 3 802 512
  • Duration: September 2015 to August 2019


Read more here: European Commission -  Success Stories

EURARE project is completed

The EURARE project began on the 1st of January 2013, and ran for five years (Balomenos et al., 2017). Its main goal was to set the basis for the development of a sustainable European REE industry. It aimed to safeguard the uninterrupted supply of REE raw materials and products crucial for sectors of the EU economy (including automotive, electronics, machinery and chemicals) in a sustainable, economically viable and environmentally-friendly way. The EURARE project was co-funded by the European Commission (EC) under the 2012 Cooperation Work Programme for Nanotechnologies, Materials and new Production Technologies and specifically the raw materials topic NMP.2012.4.1-1 ‘New environmentally friendly approaches in minerals processing’. The project brought together researchers from geological surveys, academia, consultancies and industry (Figure 1) to deliver a holistic approach to the European rare earth supply chain. This brochure summarises the different aspects of the REE supply chain, with a focus on Europe and the research carried out within the EURARE project.

More information here: Research and development for the Rare Earth Element supply chain in Europe

G. Bailey & 7th Trilateral Critical Materials

Gwendolyn Bailey, a Marie-Skłodowska Curie fellow from KU Leuven represented the European H2020 ETN DEMETER (on Design and Recycling of Rare-Earth Permanent Magnet Motors and Generators in Hybrid and Full Electric Vehicles) at the 7th Trilateral EU-US-Japan Conference on Critical Materials. The conference took place on 12 October 2017 in Pittsburgh, USA. The audience consisted of researchers, industry members, government officials and other stakeholders all of whom have vast experience working with critical materials.

Towards a more sustainable electric vehicle


Gwen Bailey, ESR in ETN DEMETER

Gwendolyn’s presentation titled, “DEMETER – Towards a more sustainable electric vehicle”, touched upon how electric vehicles are contributing to global supply risk and the criticality of materials such as rare earth elements. Another major challenge is that today electric vehicles are not recycled, and there is not yet a reliable recycling procedure or infrastructure. In her presentation, Gwendolyn explained that the objectives of the DEMETER project are to develop three recovery routes for end-of-life (EoL) electric vehicle motors/generators: indirect recycling, direct recycling, and reuse. The indirect recycling route is a green chemical recycling process developed by KU Leuven and involves using ionic liquids to transform rare earth magnets back into to its elemental components. These elemental or metal components can then be used for permanent magnet production or other rare earth applications. The direct recycling route in which case the magnets are treated as a raw material for the production of new magnets, but using novel techniques such as hydrogen decrepitation processing, plasma/strip casting, and spark plasma sintering, to produce new, ready-to-use, magnetic materials or a new master alloy. Lastly, the direct reuse approach involves removing the magnets from EoL motors/generators and using them again in new motors/generators. The presentation shows how DEMETER will test these recycling routes in collaboration with early stage researchers, universities, businesses, and research institutions based in the EU.

Trilateral background and programme

The Trilateral Conference on Critical Materials is an annually held event organised by the European Commission (EC), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation (NEDO) to emphasize the strategic importance of critical materials and to enhance collaboration among the three countries/continents (EU-US-JP). Each region gave an update on topics such as: resource efficiency, improving criticality assessments, bettering material resources and technology, and recycling from unconventional resources. The one-day event successfully demonstrated that the trilateral regions are working to properly monitor materials to foster resource efficiency and a circular economy, to reduce environmental pressures arising throughout a material’s life cycle, and to quantify the availability or ‘elemental criticality.’ The presenters and their presentations under each theme are listed below.


Session 1: Updates from the Trilateral

  • Prof. Gian Andrea Blengini: “Critical Raw Materials for the EU: JRC activities and revision of the list”
  • Hiroshi Oikawa; “Japan’s view on Critical Materials: Recent developments regarding Rare Metals”
  • Thomas Rasmussen; “Defense Logistics Agency strategic plans”

Session 2: Criticality and Supply Chain Analysis

  • Shinsuke Murakami, “Criticality assessment in Japan?”
  • Rod Eggert, “Material criticality : comparing china, Europe, Japan and the USA”
  • Vincent Blet, “SCREEN – Solutions for Critical Raw Materials – A European Expert Network”
  • Daniel B. Mueller “MinFUTURE – Towards a Google Maps for the global physical economy”

Session 3: Resources and Technology, A Canadian Perspective

  • Janice Zinck, Canmet MINING/Natural Resources

Session 4: Key Materials Development

  • Orlando Rios, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Critical Materials Institute
  • Prof. Duncan Allsopp, University of Bath
  • Chiharu Mitsumata, National Institute for Material Science (NIMS)

Session 5: Recovery from Recycled and Unconventional Sources

Symposium on Social License to Operate (21-2-18)

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy – the social license to operate for mining and recycling of critical metals – Symposium day in the context of Artefact 2018: This Rare Earth – Stories from Below

As part of “Artefact 2018: This Rare Earth – Stories from Below”, which is the largest arts festival in Flanders, a group of organisations (STUK, SIM² KU Leuven, KU Leuven Dienst Cultuur, i-Cleantech Vlaanderen, STUK, EIT RawMaterials) has joined forces to offer a unique, one-day symposium in Leuven on the Social License to Operate with respect to the primary mining and recycling of critical metals. The Symposium is intended for a diversity of audiences, ranging from civil society, academia, industry and policy makers (max. 300 participants) and will host a variety of national and international speakers. The Symposium will offer the participants the opportunity to also experience the unique, rare-earth related artwork that will be exhibited.


The rationale for this Symposium is the paradox between the importance of critical metals  for the transition to a low-carbon, cleantech-based economy on the one hand and the not-always-so-positive image of the primary mining industry on the other hand. Clean energy and clean mobility for instance require vast amounts of rare earths (neodymium, dysprosium etc.) for the permanent magnets that are needed in wind turbines or electric motors for Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (HEVs). Likewise, energy storage systems and HEVs need even increasing amounts of lithium and cobalt for the Li-ion NMC batteries. Emission control systems require Platinum Group Metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. Unfortunately, the mining of these metals does not always happen in the best environmental and/or human rights circumstances. Mining conflicts in China, Congo or Latin-America are widespread. In Europe, where concentrations of critical metals are less outspoken than in other parts of the world, primary mining is often blocked by local activist groups, who don’t want to see industrial mining activities to take place in “their backyard”. Although there can be good reasons for this rejection, this often may also imply that the environmental burden is shifted to other parts in the world, as clean technologies and also hi-tech electronics (e.g. smart phones, laptops etc.) are critically dependent on the mining of these types of critical metals. Some argue that the West behaves hypocritically: European citizens want to enjoy the luxury of hi-tech electronics (e.g. smart phones and electronics) and a multitude of cleantech products (electric bikes and cars, solar panels, clean energy) but don’t want to share in the burden of the primary production of these metals.

This leads us to a number of questions: How can the primary mining sector clean up its act in and outside Europe? Is responsible mining a pipe dream? How can mining companies obtain and maintain a Social License to Operate? Which interaction is required between industry, policy makers, civil society and local communities? Are they any best practice examples? What is the relation between primary mining of critical metals and recycling of End-of-Life products? Can recycling replace primary mining or is it merely complementary to mining? Which policies are required in Europe to support the recycling industry and how does this relate to the Circular Economy vision? Should we look at our industrial landfills in Europe to recover critical metals from previously dumped, critical metal-containing mining waste and industrial process residues (i.e. Enhanced Landfill Mining)? Are local communities supportive for such a strategy? These questions will form the background for a number of keynote lectures and two panel discussions. The Symposium will also offer the participants to have a speed trip allowing to enjoy the unique, rare-earth related art work that will be exhibited.


With keynotes by a.o. Egbert Lox (Umicore & EIT RawMaterials) and Leida Rijnhout (Friends of the Earth Europe) and panel contributions by a.o. Bart Blanpain (KU Leuven) & Karel Van Acker (EIT RawMaterials). Moderated by Dirk Draulans.


Registration required — More info soon.

More info on the official leaflet – Download folder here


Background on Artefact 2018: This Rare Earth – Stories from Below

Artefact is a yearly themed exhibition and festival on contemporary visual arts, current events and societal challenges, organised by STUK, House for Dance, Image and Sound, in Leuven. With its 2,5 week duration (February 13 – March 1, 2018), attracting on average 15,000 visitors, it is the largest of its kind in Flanders. The 2018 edition: This Rare Earth – Stories from Below will focus on the stories told by geological materials; conflict minerals and metals including rare earth elements to begin with. Through recent and newly commissioned work of some 20 international artists, the exhibition will look into the geological, political, economic and ecological implications of their circulation; from mining, processing, and trading, to use, and recycling. The artists involved offer us alternative perspectives on the global political, economic and ecological stories of extraction and trade.  For Artefact festival programmes of previous years, please see http://www.artefact-festival.be/en

DEMETER video wins prize during EC JRC conference

The ETN DEMETER project participated in the EU4FACTS video & poster competition. Researchers were invited to create videos and posters to showcase their research and relate it to the topics of the EU4FACTS conference. These topics dealt with the role of science in times of fake news and ‘filter bubbles’ (Why should we trust science?), governing: emotions versus numbers (How to deal with ‘alternative’ sources of statistics?), and re-designing policymaking using behavioral and decision science (How can evidence and data be effectively balanced with values and emotions when policy decisions are taken?).

In total, 24 videos and a dozen posters entered the competition (all videos can be watched online on http://goo.gl/6xgmAb; in the series, the videos of ETN NEW-MINE and ETN SOCRATES are also featured). The ETN DEMETER video was awarded as an example on how science can contribute to evidence based policy making, sending out a clear example on what the project objectives are and how it relates to the broader international context.

The JRC annual conference “EU4FACTS: Evidence for policy in a post-fact world” started with the award ceremony announcing the winners of the video competition. The conference aims at clear recommendations for successful evidence-informed policy making: “The interaction between science and policy has never been straightforward. But this relationship has been further complicated by the current post-fact debate. This crisis is a challenge for the whole of society, not only scientists, experts, the media and policymakers, but also for politicians.”

Throughout the conference, a strong emphasis was placed on the need for involving citizens a lot more in the communication of the scientific evidence. “Citizens no longer accept being told what to believe. They want to know why they should believe it,” explained Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research Science & Innovation. We are proud that the DEMETER video demonstrated on how complex scientific processes can be presented in a clear manner to a broad audience.

Later that day, the ETN DEMETER team also participated to the European Researchers Night, organized in the European Parliament under the slogan “Science is wonder-full”. During this annual event researchers demonstrate what really do for society in interactive and engaging ways, promoting research careers to young people and their parents. It is an Europe-wide public event dedicated to popular science and fun learning. It is supported by the European Commission as a part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, funded under the Horizon 2020 programme, to boost the careers of researchers.