You may not know much about rare earth magnets, but they’re a critically important part of our daily lives.
Nd-Fe-B magnets are essential for building the world’s most powerful and most efficient electric motors—the same electric motors that today consume more than half of the world’s electricity. This percentage is only growing as we transition further away from fossil fuels, and it’s exactly for this reason that Bird’s recycling partner Urban Mining Co (UMC) is so important.
UMC is a San Marcos, Texas-based company that’s transforming the world’s supply of rare earth magnets in order to secure a high-tech, sustainable future. With the introduction of their recycling technology in 2016, UMC became the world’s only magnet manufacturer capable of producing upcycled magnets without the use of chemical and energy-intensive processes. They are also the sole neo-magnet producer in the Western Hemisphere.
That’s important because, currently, the vast majority of rare earth raw material production (80%) and magnet manufacturing (90%) takes place across the Pacific, and mining the material necessary to build these rare earth magnets comes at a heavy environmental price.
UMC is changing that.
“Urban Mining Company is the only manufacturer of Nd-Fe-B rare earth magnets in the U.S. and is the sole producer globally that uses alternative, abundant resources–waste magnetic materials–to support Nd-Fe-B magnet manufacturing,” said UMC Executive Vice President Peter Afiuny. “Our approach to creating a circular economy around critical materials is the most practical path to resource efficiency, independence and sustainability.”
How Recycled Bird Scooters are Transforming Rare Earth Magnet Manufacturing
Bird’s partnership with UMC is a critically important part of our industry-leading recycling program.
As our vehicles reach the end of their usable life, we harvest their motors, stators and magnets to be sent away for recycling. The team at UMC then uses advanced extraction technology and second life applications to ensure that the rare earth and other materials that make up these components live on well after their last scooter ride. Here’s how they do it.
“Urban Mining Company has developed technology to surgically extract magnets from end-of-life material streams while maximizing recovery of other valuable metals as well,” said Afiuny. “If we look at a Bird scooter, we see that the magnet is embedded deeply in the rotors of the in-hub motor, and its weight is a small percentage of the materials recovered overall. UMC technology upcycles the ‘1%’ and maximizes the value of the remaining 99% by creating more pure material streams.”
This means that the finished magnets produced by UMC using recycled Bird components go on to help manufacture a wide variety of equipment including wind turbines, generators, on-board power systems, HVAC, refrigeration units, robotics, electronic communications, MRI scanners and much more.
The aluminum gets processed directly to make aircraft- and automotive-grade high purity parts, while the copper is used in direct smelting operations to produce high purity materials and alloys for use in a variety of industrial applications.
“In the Bird case study, we are first creating more pure, single source material streams through the process of extracting the magnet (al, cu, steel, LiIon, magnet, etc),” said Afiuny. “We’re then creating additional value by using the extracted magnet as a feedstock in a novel magnet production process instead of recovering individual elements.”
Why it Matters
The transition to recycled Nd-Fe-B magnets is about much more than decentralizing the supply chain and meeting increasing electric energy demands. Thanks to UMC’s innovative technology, recycled Bird scooters are helping significantly reduce the environmental damage caused by mining rare earth materials.
“Through UMC’s magnet-to-magnet recycling technology, we have achieved a 50% reduction in energy compared to traditional magnet producers,” said Afiuny. “Compared to the traditional mine-to-magnet production chain, our process is 90% more energy efficient. Furthermore, based on a life cycle assessment study we conducted with Purdue University, UMC’s process represents as much as a 50% net reduction across all other major environmental impact indicators.”
Bird is proud to partner with Urban Mining Co. to help make good on our mission of providing environmentally friendly transportation for everyone. To learn more about our industry-leading recycling programs, including innovative battery second life applications, subscribe to the Bird Cities Blog.