Hitachi Plans to Recycle Rare Earth Magnets to Avoid Shortages

TOKYO, Japan — As the world gets more plugged in and more connected, the demand for gadgets is through the roof. But some of the raw materials that are critical for those gadgets -- especially for hybrid car batteries, cell phones and hard disk drives -- are in short supply.

The appropriately named rare earth materials are today found almost entirely in China. The country holds about 97 percent of the world's supply, and earlier this year the country announced plans to cut back on exports of the materials, driving prices and concern in the rest of the world.

In order to become more self-sufficient for its rare earths needs, Hitachi this week announced that it has developed a new, more efficient system to recycle the rare earth magnets from discarded technology. Hitachi has developed what the company says are the first machines of its kind, capable of extracting 100 magnets per hour, compared to the current method, which requires workers to manually extract magnets at a rate of about 12 per hour.

"We need to make sure we have a stable supply of these materials and recycling is part of that," Kenji Baba, general manager of Hitachi's resource recycling office, told Bloomberg. "Now we have to work on bringing costs down."

By undertaking the recycling effort, Hitachi believes in can boost its use of recycled rare earth materials to 10 percent by 2013, up from about zero use of recycling today.

Although rare earth minerals are relatively commonly found in the Earth's crust, few nations or companies have invested in sourcing the materials. But as China begins to hold its supplies closer to home and prices rise, the incentives to develop new sources have increased.

Hitachi's move comes as part of its 100th anniversary celebration, one that has found the company embracing green technologies as a way to revive profits and open new markets. Hitachi's green shift is part of a trend among Japanese companies; Panasonic announced a similar green shift for its own 100th anniversary in October. Samsung as well made a $4.3 billion commitment to green tech in July.

Photo CC-licensed by abdallahh.