iNEMI’s Value Recovery Project Demonstrates a Circular Economy for Hard Disk Drives

iNEMI’s Value Recovery Project Demonstrates a Circular Economy for Hard Disk Drives
Five demonstration projects go beyond the theoretical
to prove feasibility of major value recovery pathways

Download the report

MORRISVILLE, NC (August 21, 2019) — The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) today announced the publication of a report by the consortium’s Value Recovery from Used Electronics project participants, describing how the project successfully used end-of-life hard disk drives (HDDs) to demonstrate a viable process toward the development of a multi-stakeholder circular economy.

Project 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 a 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 provide 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 major critical-to-market circular economy pathways. The demonstration teams were able to successfully: reuse magnet assemblies, recover intact magnets for non-HDD use, make magnets from magnets and shred, make rare earth element (REE) oxides from HDD magnets and develop business models that would allow functioning HDDs to be reused/resold after secure, verifiable, economically viable data wiping.
“This report represents a significant body of work. It details the well-coordinated efforts of organizations from across the electronics supply chain that worked together on a practical application of circular economy concepts for electronics,” said Marc Benowitz, CEO of iNEMI. “These electronics manufacturing companies, national labs, universities and research institutes were able to successfully demonstrate that a circular economy can be a reality for used electronic products. We recognize the many contributions from the individuals and organizations involved in this effort and thank them for helping achieve such meaningful results.”

Ostrom Framework
The Value Recovery project was organized explicitly using the Ostrom Framework as a self-managing, sustainable system. The project team went beyond the theoretical in demonstrating major value recovery pathways for used HDDs in a circular economy. This systems approach has never been done before and, as far as the team knows, the Ostrom Framework has never 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. 
“A major emphasis of this work was going beyond theory to identify existing economic and technology challenges to achieving sustained circularity,” said Bill Olson, formerly with Seagate Technology and co-leader of the Value Recovery project. “In areas where we identified gaps, we worked to bridge those gaps via demonstrations. Our multi-stakeholder teams’ demonstrations overcame gaps by applying existing technology in new ways, developing new technologies, or capturing existing but as yet unrecovered value to achieve sustainable supply via the Ostrom Framework.” 

Demonstration Projects
The work accomplished by the demonstration project teams is especially significant. These demonstrations proved the effectiveness of multiple recovery pathways for reusing HDDs, including business models needed to securely destroy data so that functioning hard disk drives can be sold to new users. Table 1 summarizes the five demonstration projects and their outcomes.

“The most ambitious goal of the project team was true circularity at the highest possible value — making hard drives from hard drives,” said Carol Handwerker, Professor of Materials Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University, and co-leader of the Value Recovery project. “The team was able to accomplish this goal, as well as create all the other value recovery pathways needed to make a circular HDD life cycle a reality.” 

“Today, almost all of the value of HDDs is lost by shredding them into mixed aluminum scrap sold at $0.25/lb,” Handwerker continued. “This is in contrast to the significantly higher value recovery that this iNEMI project demonstrated is possible, from HDD  and component reuse, to recovery of REEs as magnet powders, oxides or metals to turn them back into RE magnets. Establishing that all of these pathways can be realized economically, logistically and with lower environmental impact is a significant accomplishment.”

Project Participants
iNEMI brought together a team of individuals and organizations who not only represented the full supply chain for value recovery for HDDs, but also the wide range of expertise and creative thinking needed to address this multi-dimensional challenge of value recovery from HDDs. The specific stakeholders who participated in the Phase 2 project included:
Ames Laboratory
Cascade Asset Management
Critical Materials Institute
Echo Environmental
Idaho National Laboratory
Momentum Technologies
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Purdue University
Rifer Environmental/Green Electronics Council
Seagate Technology
University of Arizona
Urban Mining Company
Download the Report
To download a copy of the Value Recovery report, go to:
About iNEMI
The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative’s mission is to forecast and accelerate improvements in the electronics manufacturing industry for a sustainable future. The consortium is made up of more than 90 manufacturers, suppliers, industry associations and consortia, government agencies, research institutes and universities. iNEMI roadmaps the needs of the electronics industry, identifies gaps in the technology infrastructure, executes collaborative projects to eliminate these gaps (both business and technical) and stimulates standards activities to speed the introduction of new technologies. The consortium also works with government agencies, universities and other funding agencies to set priorities for future industry needs and R&D initiatives. iNEMI is based in Morrisville, North Carolina. For additional information about iNEMI, visit
 Table 1. Summary of Demonstration Projects

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 used 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 used 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 exposure have created the infrastructure, processes, and business partnerships necessary to minimize risk by making sure any data that was on the hard disk drive (HDD) has been wiped clean and is unrecoverable. 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.