A student team from the University of Houston swept this year’s U.S. Department of Energy Clean Energy Business Plan Competition. With their innovative (and proprietary) approach to recycling a pair of critical rare earth materials, the REEcycle team introduced the energy industry to an innovative way to turn waste into a domestic stream of rare earth elements (REEs).

The company’s technology allows them to recover neodymium and dysprosium from computer hard drives that are disposed of around the country. These two REEs are critical to many energy applications including high-efficiency wind turbines and electric motors. Furthermore, they are not only rare (i.e. not often found in deposits that are practical to mine given available technology) but are also supplied predominantly by a single country. At present, China represents over 90% of worldwide neodymium and dysprosium production.

Computer hard drives containing these two REEs are collected by electronics recyclers around the United States. However, they are not fully recycled due to a lack of an economic process for recovering the valuable materials. According to their laboratory trials, the REEcycle process could provide an economic process for reclaiming these rare earth elements from these hard drives. In turn, they could create a domestic supply of these elements for the US market.

In their process, the REEcycle team starts by collecting discarded magnets directly from electronic recyclers nationwide. The external nickel-plating is then removed and the remaining material is ground and placed into a reusable solvent mixture. At this stage in the process, the iron and boron found in the magnets separate from the neodymium and dysprosium. The former are physically removed from the solvent, while the latter are passed through a filter and packaged for sale to U.S. manufacturers.

The REEcycle team consists of three undergraduate business students who were paired last year with two inventors as a part of the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. Casey McNeil (CEO), and co-founders Susan Tran and Cassandra Hoang, first met Allan Jacobson and Pradeep Samarasekere as a part of their studies. But, the partnership became much more than a school project as the team members saw how they could take the concept well beyond the classroom.

Jacobson and Samarasekere granted the student team an exclusive license for their patented process in exchange for an equity stake in their company, REEcycle. The project originally struggled to gain support at its home university, but after the team won a business-plan competition at Baylor University last March, the school came around and offered its full support. According to McNeil, the team also found a champion and invaluable mentor in Stephanie Yanchinski with the Resnick Sustainability Institute at CalTech.

According to Yanchinski “The students showed a maturity that left no stone unturned in contacting and securing relationships and partnerships on all sides that will accelerate their business.” Her support and mentorship through the development process become a critical step in REEcycles development from student project to viable business idea. In turn, the team saw their faith and hard work rewarded when they won a business plan competition at Baylor University and eventually swept past the field at the Department of Energy’s competition, winning not only the grand prize but also the Audience Investor Choice and People’s Choice Awards.

Moving forward, the REEcycle team hoped to scale this technology to a point far beyond what they can achieve in their lab. As a result, they are meeting with companies who use neodymium and dysprosium in their manufacturing processes. Their goal is to facilitate the use of their process directly in manufacturing centres in order to streamline and quickly grow the nation’s use of the REEcycle process.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Casey McNeil