The UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, has announced a £6.6m investment in research projects which aim to help build a stronger supply chain of the critical minerals used widely in electronics and industry. The Critical Materials for Magnets Competition is part of the CLIMATES programme, announced in February, which committed £15m of government funding for cutting-edge research to strengthen the supply of critical materials.
This supply chain represents a huge opportunity for UK businesses; the global market for rare-earth elements (REE) is projected to grow from $2.5bn to $5.5bn by 2028. (Fortune Business Insights)
On 11 September, 16 UK-based innovation projects were announced as winners of the first competition. In total there are 40 organisations receiving funding. 27 are businesses (of those 22 are SMEs) and 13 are universities or Research and Technology Organisations (RTOs).
Mike Biddle, Executive Director for Net Zero at Innovate UK said: “By recycling and recovering valuable rare-earth magnets, we are reducing the environmental impact of extraction, saving energy, and creating a resilient supply chain in a growing global market. These materials are fundamental to building a net zero economy so we need a sustainable way to access these critical materials and for innovation to thrive in harmony with responsible resource management. I’m pleased for our competition winners, who have demonstrated their commitment to this by making this happen and I wish them well on their innovation projects.”
Minister for Investment Dominic Johnson said: “Critical minerals are vitally important to our economy, and the funding awarded for these cutting-edge projects today will help us strengthen the industry’s supply chain even further.
“There are huge opportunities for UK firms in the booming rare earth elements market, and I congratulate the winners on their success in helping to drive this growth; a brilliant way to kick off the Northern Ireland Investment Summit this week.”
Among the winners is Ionic Technologies Ltd, based in Belfast, which specialises in the recycling of magnets to enable the creation of sustainable and traceable rare-earth supply chains. The company has successfully secured funding for two CLIMATES projects: in partnership with the British Geological Survey, Ionic Technologies will complete a feasibility study of a commercial magnet recycling plant in Belfast. The other project aims to develop a traceable, circular supply chain of rare-earths for application in EV motors within the UK, working in partnership with Less Common Metals (LCM) and Ford Technologies.
Thomas Kelly, General Manager of Ionic Technologies said: “The funding provided via the partnership with Innovate UK, as well as the opportunity to work with purpose-driven and innovative organisations that the projects are affording, is adding significant value to our business. Ionic Technologies is driving the emerging supply chain for Rare Earths, and its ability to meet the increasing demand for critical minerals in the UK and abroad. This will enable the UK to meet its Net Zero ambitions, by serving renewable technologies such as wind energy and EV manufacturing.”
Another innovative project to successfully secure investment is a collaboration between EMR, HyProMag Ltd, Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, Magnomatics and The University of Birmingham, which aims to sustainably decommission and recycle offshore wind turbines.
The first generation of wind turbines are now nearing the end of their life, and decommissioning them sustainably presents a multi-faceted challenge. The project aims to be part of a low-carbon decommissioning programme that allows for the retrieval of the Rare Earth Elements used in their construction.
Nick Mann, Operations General Manager of HyProMag said: “We are very excited about this innovative project and the opportunity to further develop the UK supply chain for rare earth magnet recycling with the support of Innovate UK and an excellent consortium of project partners. This project will address the hurdles for recycling of permanent magnets from wind turbines, effectively unlocking a new domestic source of rare earths.”
A collaboration between Materials Nexus (MatNex) and Less Common Metals (LCM) also received investment. The project aims to greatly reduce the use of heavy rare-earth elements in high-performance permanent magnets, without affecting performance.
The aim for the new magnet materials is to be cheaper, more sustainable and, by reducing reliance on supply from China, have a much more robust supply chain.
Dr Jonathan Bean, CEO of MatNex said: “We’re delighted to have this opportunity to partner with Innovate UK and LCM to use our AI platform in this area – and this is just one of many improved materials that we are planning to develop.”
Albert Slot, Managing Director of LCM said: “Critical materials are essential for various high-tech applications including electric vehicles, renewable energy systems, medical devices and information technology, and are often subject to supply chain vulnerabilities. By investing in projects such as this, the potential exists to revolutionise the production processes of these materials, therefore reducing dependence on foreign sources and enhancing domestic control.”
List of winners
The full list of winners in Strand 1 (for Feasibility Studies) are:
- Ionic Recovery Ltd / Imperial College – Recovery of REE from end-of-life mobile phones
- Seloxium Ltd / Oxford University – Securing a supply of REE from volcanic tuffs for UK magnet manufacture.
- Altilium Metals Ltd / Exeter University – Recovery of REE from mining tailings for re-entry into the UK supply chain
- Nanomox Ltd / STFC / Green Rose Chemistry Ltd – Valorisation of magnet waste
- *Materials Nexus Ltd / Less Common Metals Ltd – Using machine learning techniques to design high performing magnets with reduced REE.
- Lightning Machines Ltd / Warwick University – Recovery of REE from electric vehicles
- Magnetic Systems Technology Ltd / Hirst Magnetic Instruments Ltd – Recovery and reuse of magnets from electric vehicles
- Pensana Rare Earths PLC / Universities of Leeds and Hull / Polestar Automotive / Route 2 Sustainability Ltd – Creating a low carbon, environmentally sustainable and socially just value chain for rare earth magnets.
- Phyona Ltd / Brunel University – Biomass extraction of REE from coal mines.
The winners in Strand 2 for later stage research and development (R&D) are:
- European Metal Recycling Ltd / Hypromag Ltd / Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult / Magnomatics / Birmingham University – Decommisioning and recycling of offshore wind turbines*
- Ionic Technologies Ltd / Less Common Metals Ltd / Ford Technologies Ltd – Creating a circular supply chain for recycled magnets
- Medallion Innovations / CPI, Minviro Ltd / Siemens Process Systems Engineering Ltd – An innovative separation technology of REE and other critical materials from mixed concentrates.
- Benks Global Ltd / Materials Processing Institute – new process methods for refining REE
- Minviro Ltd / Exeter University Grundfos Manufacturing Ltd, Mkango Rare Earths UK Ltd – Software tool to strengthen the UK REE magnet supply chain by enhancing and ensuring strong sustainability credentials.
- Ionic Technologies Ltd / British Geological Survey – A feasibility study into the construction and supply side dynamics of a magnet rare earth recycling plant in the UK.
- GSA / Lincoln University – Recovery of REE from titanium oxide waste