It’s one thing to incrementally adopt more sustainable manufacturing processes and introduce more eco-friendly materials to a product – it’s another entirely to build a business model on enabling the circular economy with a mission to provide the planet with the means to embrace electrification and reduce dependence on limited resources. Enter: Urban Mining Company (UMC)– a Nd-Fe-B (more on that later) magnet recycling manufacturer who has not only enabled a rare earth element to live far beyond its initial intended use but has pioneered digital manufacturing practices to refine the circular economy.
To understand the sustainability impact that Urban Mining Co is making, let’s unpack a few things:
Neodymium-iron-boron Magnets that are highly resource-intensive to create and are required to operate most of the electronics we use every day
The transition from being powered by combustion and fossil fuels to being powered by electricity, often generated by renewable sources, such as wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear
The process by which materials and products that have already been manufactured and used are re-absorbed into the supply chain
When first creating Nd-Fe-B, rare earth elements need to be carefully blended and compounded in an energy-intensive process. Once they’re manufactured, they enable other systems, like electric cars, satellites, radar, and earbuds to function using electrical energy sources, rather than combustion. At this point in their lifecycle, Nd-Fe-B seems to do more environmental good than harm. The challenge is that once these magnets are initially used, they’re typically discarded, and the process must start over for the next generation of electronics.
Circular Economy at UMC
UMC has turned that vicious manufacturing cycle into a virtuous one by harvesting discarded Nd-Fe-B, and preparing them for their next use, often with higher quality and longevity measures by leveraging digital manufacturing and quality management technologies. Now that these materials can not only be re-used, but can be enhanced upon re-use, their applications and impact on industrial electrification can start to be realized on a much bigger scale.
Lower Emissions. UMC saves 11 tons of CO2 per ton of magnet produced relative to magnets using virgin materials. The other emissions reduced are carcinogens, smog, respiratory effects, and ozone depletion
Lowers Energy Usage. UMC uses 52% of the energy used in traditional magnet manufacturing (further to 9% if avoidance of mining is included)
Lower Dangerous Waste. UMC circular manufacturing produces no acidic wastewater, nor does it release or produce radioactive waste byproducts (by contrast, traditional rare-earth mining produces one ton of acidic and radioactive wastewater per ton of magnet produced)
It’s in this way that UMC has turned the Circular Economy from a buzzword to a strategic differentiator. A big shout-out to UMC for not only making a product that enables a more sustainable future but doing so in a way that proves both the value and attainability of a circular economy.