iNEMI's Value Recovery from Used Electronics project successfully used end-of-life (EoL) hard disk drives (HDDs) to demonstrate a viable process toward the development of a multi-stakeholder circular economy. Activities focused on three areas:

  1. Construction of a set of decision trees to identify the options (pathways) at each step in the value recovery chain in the context of a circular economy and what information each of the stakeholders needs in order to pursue higher value recovery along a0101 HDD smaller shutterstock_72072415 given pathway.
  2. Development of economic models, life cycle assessments and logistics models to determine which value recovery options generate the highest value/profit by type and size of drive. These models then become the basis for business decision-making by the stakeholders, both individually and collectively, as part of supply chains.
  3. Demonstration projects to prove the efficacy of the major critical-to-market circular economy pathways.

The work accomplished by the demonstration project teams is especially significant. These demonstrations proved the effectiveness of multiple recovery pathways to reusing HDDs, including business models needed to securely destroy data so that functioning hard disk drives can be sold to new users.

Why Hard Disk Drives?

The project team chose hard disk drives (HDDs) to demonstrate how a circular economy can be developed.

EoL HDDs are good candidates for this purpose because they have a consistent form factor (2.5" or 3.5") and consistent manufactured design, plus the demand for data storage capacity is outpacing the ability of HDD and SSD manufacturers to keep up with that demand. Under these conditions, reuse of used HDDs by securely and economically wiping them is the highest value recovery option and is central to a viable circular economy for HDDs.

Another advantage of targeting HDDs is that they contain rare earth elements (REEs), which are critical for development of many high-tech products, especially “green” technologies. REEs are being consumed at a rate that cannot be maintained over the long term, with the risk of supply shortages and disruptions limiting their availability. Permanent magnets provide readily available and accessible feedstocks for recovering REEs. These magnets are found in large quantities in HDDs and are available for harvesting, recovery for reuse and remanufacturing, and recycling/recovery for the REE content. Given that new technologies have been coming available for value recovery from REE magnets, this project focused on removing the barriers to HDD reuse and on demonstrating circular economy pathways for REE magnets in HDDs.

The demonstration projects are summarized in the table below, followed by additional discussion of each demonstration.


Demonstration Focus

Demonstration Goals

Outcome/Lessons Learned


HDD magnet assembly reuse

Implement a process for harvesting rare earth voice coil magnet assemblies (VCMAs) from used hard drives at an electronics recycler and place back into a new hard drive on the OEM production assembly line. 

Although technology exists to reuse magnet assemblies within an HDD OEM, engaged supply chain partners and process innovations are required to make the reuse of externally sourced VCMAs viable on a large scale.

Intact magnet recovery for non-HDD use

Determine if magnets recovered from a punching process can be reused as a magnet powder or as an intact magnet.

Development of new designs for motors, actuators, etc. for direct reuse of HDD magnets in non-HDD high value-added applications is possible.

Make magnets from magnets and shred

Demonstrate m2m®** technology for recovering magnets from HDDs for reprocessing into new magnets.

A mix of used HDDs was collected from project members and processed into new sintered magnet blocks through a powder metallurgical route. These blocks were then machined to dimensions identical to modern HDD sintered magnets. It was shown that new HDD magnets can be produced using a mixed range of end-of-life HDDs while achieving magnetic properties comparable to modern HDD magnets.

Make REE oxides from HDD magnets

Prove feasibility of two technologies (a membrane solvent extraction process and an acid-free dissolution process) for recovering magnets from HDDs for processing into rare earth oxides.

A mix of HDDs in various forms was collected from several contributing partners and processed into mixed high-purity rare earth oxides (e.g., neodymium, dysprosium). Metal ingots were then created from the recovered oxides. These ingots can be used as feedstock for remanufacturing of magnets.

Reuse/resell HDDs after secure, verifiable, economically viable data wiping

Identify possible business relationships, logistics, and economic requirements for secure, verifiable data wiping needed for selling HDDs to new users.

Many organizations that are highly risk averse with respect to data loss have created the infrastructure, processes, and business partnerships necessary to minimize risk and data wipe and resell HDDs. Using these companies and their partners as models, the team established best practices for how partners interact and what the various partners must provide to minimize risk.  In addition, a model for the economic decision-making processes and data needed for wiping and resale (and for other recovery pathways) was developed.

** Urban Mining Company's Magnet-to-Magnet® technology

Demonstration #1: HDD Magnet Assembly Direct Reuse — Voice Coil Magnet Assemblies (VCMAs)

This first proof-of-concept demonstration recovered voice coil magnet assemblies (VCMAs) containing rare earth elements (REEs) from post-consumer drives and used them to assemble new drives. This new, circular path for HDD components consisted of removing VCMAs from used Seagate Enterprise Makara drives from a large enterprise user (Google) at an electronics after-market services provider (Teleplan) and assembling them into new drives back on the HDD OEM production line (Seagate). Doing so required creating a new process beyond existing material flows to enable reclaiming used parts outside Seagate. It also required an inventory mechanism for the reused parts placed in new drives on Seagate's production assembly line. After going through the standard Seagate certification processes for new drives, the newly manufactured drives were returned to Google.

Demonstration #2: Intact Magnet Recovery for Non-HDD Use — Axial Flux Gap Motor

This demonstration project developed conceptual motor designs utilizing magnets recovered from HDDs. Several conceptual designs were studied including axial flux gap, radial flux gap and linear motors. One of these designs, an axial flux gap motor, was constructed by directly reusing HDD magnets.

This demonstration team included researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Ames Laboratory, both part of the U.S. Department of Energy Critical Materials Institute (CMI). The team utilized a high-throughput, cost-effective recycling technology developed by CMI and were able to economically recover intact HDD magnets for direct reuse in motor designs. ORNL and Ames Lab successfully designed and built functional permanent magnet motors that directly reuse the recovered HDD magnets. Direct magnet reuse takes advantage of alternate supplies of highly desirable REE magnetsNot only are the recovered magnets more economical, but this process has the potential for significant environmental impact by avoiding the thermo-chemical processing required to make original magnets.

Demonstration #3: Creating Useful Magnets from Waste Magnets and Shred

This demonstration project used Urban Mining Company's (UMC's) patented process called Magnet-to-Magnet® (m2m®). This commercialized process involves harvesting EoL Nd-Fe-B magnets from devices and reprocessing the extracted magnets into newly engineered magnets with different shapes and magnetic properties while achieving customers' critical-to-quality requirements. It also involves a powder-metallurgy route whereby the harvested magnets are cleaned, demagnetized and processed into new magnet blocks prior to sintering, machined to the required dimensions, and coated for corrosion protection before being magnetized.

The demonstration used a mixed batch of computer HDDs, covering different manufacturers and years of production. The team collected 3,000 HDDs to extract the sintered Nd-Fe-B magnets using a semi-automated harvesting tool (also developed by UMC). The results provide very strong evidence that the m2m recycling process can be employed to create a circular economy for HDD magnets.

This demonstration project was conducted at a 10 tons/year production facility in Austin, Texas, ahead of a new Texas-based 250 tons/year sintered Nd-Fe-B facility coming online in 2019.

Demonstration #4: Creating REE Oxides from HDD Magnets

This demonstration project focused on recovery of high-purity rare earth oxides (REOs) from waste magnets contained in hard disk drives. Momentum Technologies and Ames Laboratory, both part of CMI, participated in the demonstration. Momentum MSX technology was applied to recover >99.5 wt.% pure REOs from waste HDDs. Ames Laboratory applied the newly developed acid-free dissolution recycling technology to recover >99.95 wt.% pure REOs. Recovered oxides were used to make metal ingots, which can be reused to make permanent magnets. The team recommended working with a commercial partner to identify the best entry point for the recovered materials into the rare earth elements supply chain.

Both technologies produced mixed oxides of rare earth elements like Nd-oxide, Pr-oxide and Dy-oxide. While this is satisfactory for using the recovered rare earth elements (REEs) for magnet production as demonstrated in the project, there is still the need to diversify the potential applications in which the products can be used. As a result, it is necessary to develop recycling methods that recover the REEs in their individual phases either as oxides or, preferably, as metals. This iNEMI demonstration task proves the opportunity for recovering the embodied values in waste magnets via efficient recycling.

Demonstration #5: Creating Processes and Partnerships for Securely Wiping and Selling Functional HDDs to New Users

This demonstration project focused on creating a business model to move HDD end-of-use management from “reuse or shred” to “reuse and recover.” Reusing previously used, functional HDDs provides the highest value recovery possible for used HDDs, often by orders of magnitude. Too often fully functional HDDs are shredded due to concerns about data security. The decision for shredding is often made because the decision makers: (1) lack access to secure, verifiable data wiping processes or trusted business partners to carry them out, (2) lack information about what is possible from an economics and logistics point of view, (3) have made the decision to shred all HDDs due to organization policy, or (4) do not understand how “reuse and recover” might fit into their business models. To support the project goal of creating a business model for “reuse and recover” the project team:

  • Created economic/practical analyses of “reuse and recover” using mind maps.
  • Analyzed the role of business models and relationships with recycling partners and others in creating trusted partnerships.
  • Examined the business implications for value recovery and its scalability.
  • Developed explicit models for the specific pathways demonstrated in the project – economic, environmental and risk.
  • Created a circular economy model for HDDs to meet various organizations' needs.

Conclusion & Next Steps

The Value Recovery from Used Electronics project was organized explicitly using the Ostrom Framework as a self-managing, sustainable system to create a circular economy (CE) for hard disk drives. The Ostrom Framework is based on establishing shared goals as well as respecting the goals of the individual organizations in the partnership. Sharing information needed to make informed project decisions and building and maintaining trust were key for keeping the project on target and for understanding what the barriers were for certain partnerships or circular economy pathways. As a result of this way of collaborating, the project team went beyond the theoretical in demonstrating the major value recovery pathways for used HDDs in a circular economy. This systems approach taken by the team to create a circular economy for HDDs has never been done before. As far as the team knows, the Ostrom Framework has never before been used to design a multi-stakeholder system for self-managing and creating value from a man-made common pool resource, in this case HDDs.

Today, essentially all of the value of HDDs is lost by shredding them into mixed aluminum scrap sold at $0.25/lb. This is in contrast to the significantly higher value recovery possible with HDD reuse, component reuse (voice coil magnet assemblies), or recovery of REEs as magnet powder, oxides or metals. Establishing that all of these pathways can be realized economically, logistically and with lower environmental impact was a significant accomplishment, not just for secure data wiping/reuse but also for value recovery of REEs.

Demo #1 is the first practical demonstration of magnet remanufacturing for an HDD (i.e., magnet extraction, cleaning and insertion into the manufacturing production line) and is the first step in making a new HDD from an old HDD. This demonstration shows that reusing other components such as circuit boards in new HDDs is a real possibility.

Project accomplishments include:

  • Individuals from 15+ organizations from across the electronics supply chain worked together on a practical application of CE concepts for electronics.
  • Participating organizations developed common goals, built relationships based on trust, shared information needed to make informed decisions, and built models of what their supply chains must contain and how they must operate in order to sustain a circular economy for HDDs.
  • Presented results from extensive analysis of business models, logistics and economics necessary for secure, verifiable data wiping and identified barriers to their acceptance.
  • Demonstrated cascading CE pathways, with the highest value recovery pathway considered first. These included reuse of HDDs, recovery of key HDD components for reuse and remanufacturing for HDD and non-HDD applications, magnet recovery for magnet remanufacturing, and REE recovery. The use of these pathways was supported by the creation of decision trees based on the information needed to select one pathway over another.
  • Identified at least five pathways for high-volume REE recovery and completed demonstration projects and economic and logistics analyses to assess their overall feasibility.

The project team is discussing continuation of the project into a third phase to maintain the momentum. Future work would implement solutions identified, including validating and verifying of data wiping solutions and building broader and deeper supply chains and partnerships for realizing a circular economy for hard disk drives.