Can you recycle a hard drive? Google is trying to find out
In 2019, these stakeholders published a report outlining a range of potential strategies, including wiping and reusing entire hard drives, removing and reusing magnetic assemblies, grinding old hard drive magnets, using the powder to manufacture new ones, and extracting rare-earth elements from Torn engines. Each of these strategies has its own challenges – removing magnet assemblies by hand is labor-intensive; Extracting rare earth elements from technology can be chemical or energy intensive and produce significant waste – and to scale any of them there needs to be support from many actors across global supply chains.
Jin said making the relatively simple supply chain adjustments needed to put used or recycled rare earth magnets inside new drives “is challenging.” “And especially when you have to start from a small amount with a new technology.”
However, some companies are starting to take the first steps. In 2018, Google, hard drive manufacturer Seagate, and electronics refurbishment company Recontext (formerly Teleplan) conducted a small demonstration project that involved removing magnet assemblies from six hard drives and placing them in new Seagate drives. This demonstration was the “catalyst” for a larger 2019 study in which 6,100 magnetic assemblies were mined from Seagate hard drives at Google’s data center before being fed into the new hard drives at Seagate’s manufacturing facility, Frost says. Frost, who led the 2019 study, believes it’s the largest show of its kind ever.
The results will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Resources, conservation and recyclingNot only has it shown that rare earth magnets can be harvested and reused on a larger scale, but that there are significant environmental benefits to doing so. Overall, reused magnetic assemblies had an 86 percent lower carbon footprint than new assemblies, according to the study. Frost says that this estimate conservatively took into account the power mix of the local power grid where the data center operates. Given that Google uses renewable energy almost around the clock in this data center, the carbon footprint of reused magnets was lower.
Google declined to reveal if it had any follow-up projects in progress but directed Grist toward its stated goal of developing a scalable magnetic rare-earth recycling process. Ines Souza, director of the Resource Environmental Impact Program at Google and co-author of the new study, says there are some challenges that still need to be overcome before this becomes a reality.
These include the need for extreme cleanliness while recycling magnets “because modern hard drives are very sensitive to small particles,” and the fact that hard drives are constantly changing, resulting in new magnetic designs every few years.
“There is an opportunity to make the magnet design stable between generations so that the reuse process can be scaled up,” Souza said.
Seagate spokesperson Greg Belloni told Grist that the company is “committed to working to resolve the complexity” of rare earth element recycling through “close collaboration with customers.” Another of its customers, computer maker Dell, is exploring a different approach to recycling.
In 2019, Dell launched a pilot program with Seagate and Recontext to harvest magnets from computer hard drives (collected via Dell’s recovery program), crush them, extract rare earth elements, and use them to make new magnets. To date, about 19,000 pounds of rare earth magnets have been harvested for recycling via this collaboration. Dell spokesperson Mel Derom told Grist that the project “remains a pilot program as we continue to look for ways to expand our operations.”
While it may be years before rare earth magnets are recycled en masse using any approach, the Biden administration could help expedite these efforts. Through the Institute for Critical Materials at Ames National Laboratory, the federal government already funds several projects focused on developing cleaner and more efficient processes for recycling rare earth elements from magnets. In a recent report on enhancing supply chain resilience, administration officials wrote that 4,000 US government-run data centers represent a “near-term opportunity” to harvest rare-earth magnets using this type of federally funded research and development.