43rd Annual Meeting, May 15, 2015, “The How and Why of Reusing Earth Magnets”, with Gwen Spicer

As we approach another conference in which Gwen Spicer will share her vast knowledge in the workshop sessions Ferrous Attractions, the Science Behind the Magic (spots available as of this writing), we call attention to her 2015 session in which she explained attention that can be paid as to the sustainability of their use. This content has also been submitted to The Book and Paper Group Annual 34, but for those who are not BPG subscribers, is available on her website: The How and Why of Reusing Earth Magnets.
First she addressed what exactly are the “rare earths” from which these strong magnets are made. Chiefly, they appear among the lanthanide series of elements from the lower part of the periodic table – elements 57 through 71 and a few more. They are called rare because although they are naturally found intermingled, early on in industrial mining history, they were hard to separate due to their chemical similarities. (More information including a timeline of refining and increased production may be found on Spicer’s website and blog.)
Addressing the primary theme of the conference, Spicer asked “is it sustainable or not to use these elements, and if so, why?” Today, advanced industrial processes have made these rare earth elements easier and cheaper to separate, leading to their relative ubiquity, to a point that they are now are considered disposable. You may be surprised to learn that they make up components in so-called green technologies, such as hybrid cars and wind turbines. Because they make rapid electrical transmission in miniaturized components possible, they are one of the things that make inexpensive portable electronics possible, such as small appliances, earphone/buds, and mobile phones. While recycling/e-cycling the more expensive products such as phones is becoming more common and a cash value is placed on turn-in programs, those smaller items represent a non-recoverable portion of an ultimately finite resource.
To refine these rare earth elements, because they appear “rarely”, mining companies actually have to go through a very large amount of product to recover a small amount of valuable stock, resulting in industrial waste. As with any mining process, there are sad truths of waste management, such as polluted tailing ponds, release of atmospheric dusts, and junk metals discarded, all of which are potential contributors toward environmental pollution.
While there was production in the US, a highly visible mine incident in Mountain Pass, CA, led to closure based on EPA citations. Not surprisingly, much of the world’s production (95%) comes from China, where environmental standards are considerably more lax. To make the most profit, some countries will also offshore the labor intensive refining and processing of ore to poorer countries, leading to other uglier truths, such as the protection of the worker and environment coming down to an economic compromise, or conflict. Population studies in some countries show higher incidence of higher cancer rates and shorter life span for workers in these industries.
Spicer reported that economic and political tensions has caused Japan to invest in production of more efficient technologies and reexamining of older technologies, so as to use less material overall. As the trend shifts from the cheapening of the source material to what may eventually become more costly due to the consumer waste and reduced availability. (For further reading, Spicer goes into more detail on geo-economic and political tensions in the BPG article linked above.)
On a more positive note, Spicer turned back to what the conservator interested in using earth magnets can do; first she advises becoming a wiser and more informed consumer and user. (Just reading this article is a start!) Proper care and handling of earth magnets, chiefly the Niobium-Ferric-Bromide type, can reduce one’s overall impact by conserving the intensive material resources needed to make them. There is an excellent table of information in the article; as example, tips drawn from this session discussion include:
⁃ Earth magnets have sensitivities: protect them from extremes of heat, mechanical shock, moisture.
⁃ Use appropriate techniques to adhere or countersink them into substrates. For instance, use of hot melt glue can deactivate a magnet.
⁃ To ensure longevity during storage and use, separators are key, such as foam padding, or sinking them into other materials such as corrugated boards or foam.
⁃ Use smaller containers such as the ones they are shipped in, or pill separators, to keep them from banging into each other or ferromagnetic surfaces. Recycle other small containers, such as contact lens cases, to increase separation in small cubic space.
⁃ Keep like materials together and unlike apart – niobium apart from ferromagnetic surfaces to avoid demagnetization.
⁃ See further references in Spicer’s bibliography.
Lastly, as a watchword, Spicer leaves us with the mantra “let us be aware of best environmental practices just as we do in other areas of treatment…”
In the Q&A period, the following discussions arose:
Q: About suppliers: do any companies have more sustainable practices than others?
A: There are kind of two categories – some companies are affiliated with the mining sources, converting earths to magnets; and then there are those that just sell them. For instance, the Mountain Pass mine has started up again in US, under new restrictions, using previously gathered raw material to produce new product
Q: Are there any insights into how to dispose of or recycle earth magnets?
A: There are at least 12,000 e-cycling programs across the U.S., definitely contact them! Recycling can also a present a conflict for resources as trash picking and separation is an economic way of life for some. But for broken ones, sharp or deactivated, recycling companies are a good option to divert the unusable portion versus the municipal waste stream. Harvard University Libraries suggests contacting Terracycle of NJ, to take away waste stream that is disallowed from municipal collections.
Q: At a recent symposium, the personal safety issue came up. What are current safety recommendations for bulk storage of magnets or use for persons with pacemakers or other electronic medical devices?
A: From discussions Spicer has had, generally a magnet force field limited to three inches from the pacemaker (or other medical appliance), can be a distance of concern – this could take even place where dangling earbuds with embedded magnets are present (see the tiny print warning label on packaging of these). It is important to note that the force of the magnet is a factor of its size and any shielding around it or the object it may be attracted towards. Generally an artifact in exhibition which is mounted with magnets is very far from that distance, but it could be true for workers in a lab, or someone carrying an object enclosure with an embedded magnet.
Use of signage on enclosures or mounts indicate presence of covered magnets is a good common sense warning. As magnets are brittle, and can fly across a table at each other at great speed and shatter, safety goggles are highly recommended at all times. Hand protection may also be necessary for the worker, as pinching, splinters or nail breakage, can all be issues when separating magnets, or prying them out for reuse. If you maintain a private practice with a studio in your home, or have occasional younger visitors to your lab, be aware that swallowing by children or animals is an issue! See the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warning that was issued for more information on magnet dangers for small children. (This author is currently working on a Job Hazard Analysis for work with magnets with the assistance of an industrial hygiene group; potentially this may become available through AIC Health & Safety group as well.)