As the first generation of the UK’s wind turbines come to the end of their serviceable life, a project called “Re-Rewind” aims to help develop a sustainable, circular economy to recover and secure the essential resources needed for the next.
Re-Rewind is a partnership between sustainable materials specialist EMR, an expert in recycling rare earth magnetic materials HyProMag, the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, Magnomatics, and the University of Birmingham. Part-funded by Innovate UK, the participants have embarked on a mission to establish the UK’s first circular supply chain for the rare earth magnets used in wind turbines.
From high-quality construction steel, copper and other metals to a range of rare earth elements (such as praseodymium and dysprosium), modern wind turbines contain a wealth of materials which, if they cannot be sourced from recycled channels, must be mined, leading to increased environmental impacts and resource scarcity.
In particular, the wind turbine sector uses very large quantities of a rare earth magnet that’s an alloy of neodymium, iron and boron (NdFeB). These NdFeB magnets are critical components used in PMSGs (Permanent Magnet Synchronous Generator) in larger onshore and offshore wind turbines. With the UK’s rapid transition towards net-zero emissions, it’s predicted that in 2040 there will be a 240,000 tonne shortfall of rare earth magnets, which will slow down our progress dramatically unless an alternative source is established.
With no consistent route to recycle these materials, due to safety, economy and technical challenges in extracting and recycling the magnets, the “Re-Rewind” project is set to combat this impending shortage, bolster the UK’s rare earth material security, foster the creation of green jobs, and alleviate the strain on Earth’s diminishing resources.
EMR’s Energy Infrastructure Lead, Dr Charlotte Stamper said: “Our collaborative effort represents a significant step forward in securing the sustainability of wind energy. By establishing a circular supply chain for rare earth magnets, we not only reduce the environmental impact of wind turbine production, but we also lay the foundation for a greener, more self-sustaining future.”
HyProMag Operations General Manager, Nick Mann said: “We are thrilled about this groundbreaking project and the chance to enhance the UK’s rare earth magnet recycling supply chain. Thanks to the backing of Innovate UK and our outstanding consortium of project collaborators, we see immense potential. Each company’s unique expertise comes into play to tackle the complex task of extracting magnets from retired wind turbines.
“This project is set to overcome the obstacles associated with recycling rare earth magnets from wind turbines, effectively opening up a new domestic source of these magnets, which is a significant achievement in itself.”
Although wind power has been utilised through the ages, the first great wave of large-scale wind energy occurred in the 1990s. Consequently, many early-generation wind farms are approaching the end of their typical serviceable lifetime, estimated at around 20 to 25 years.
“Re-Rewind is leading the way in the renewable energy sector during this crucial time. Through its commitment to pioneering circular supply chain solutions, the partnership aims to make sure that wind energy remains viable in the UK for the long run and helps to create a more sustainable future for future generations.”