Belfast company’s innovative magnet recycling technology makes UK’s energy transition and decarbonisation ambitions a reality
4 July 2023
Northern Ireland clean technology company Ionic Technologies is playing a key role in helping the UK reach tight decarbonisation targets by ramping up production of magnet rare earth elements. The critical minerals, now dubbed strategic raw materials under the EU’s Critical Raw Material Act announced in March this year, are essential key components for high-performance permanent magnets used in renewable technologies, electric vehicles and products such as mobile phones.
The pioneer in magnet recycling has this month hit a major production milestone at its demonstration plant in Belfast, a move which makes it a significant UK-producer of 100% recycled rare earth oxides and helps bolster the region’s security of supply of a strategic raw material needed to power the UK’s net zero transition and green transport revolution.
Ionic Technologies has developed a unique process, which allows it to produce high purity rare earths, suitable for use in high performance permanent magnets. The company has built the capability to produce rare earth elements which can create secure and sovereign supply chains in the UK. This is significant because the mining and recycling of these elements are industries currently dominated by China.
The company is a spinout from leading centre of research, Queen’s University Belfast, and was acquired in 2022 by Australian multinational Ionic Rare Earths Limited, a mineral exploration company. Just 9 months after receiving £1.72 million in UK government support, the company has surpassed expectations, growing rapidly from pilot to demonstration plant, with bold ambitions to scale up production and build a processing plant which will put Belfast on the map as an emerging UK clean energy hub.
General Manager of Ionic Technologies Thomas Kelly said: “We have produced over 5 kg of rare earth oxides at specification, including Neodymium Oxide (Nd2O3) and Dysprosium Oxide (Dy2O3). This key production milestone confirms our capability as one of the UK’s foremost innovators in magnet recycling and a global leader in the advancement of this technology. Our patented process can provide a reliable UK supply chain source for rare earth elements, utilising existing end-of-life magnets and then create an opportunity for the UK to deliver these newly dubbed strategic materials to a global market.”
“Ionic Technologies is proud to be at the centre of Northern Ireland’s growing regional green industry, creating well-paid and sustainable employment for local talent. As we expand our operations, our objective is to deliver a commercial scale facility, potentially creating up to a further 100 highly skilled jobs in Belfast, and providing the UK with some certainty over future supply of rare earths, which are essential to deliver net zero ambitions.”
Tim Harrison, Managing Director at parent company Ionic Rare Earths Limited, said: “Our Belfast based UK facility is key to us harnessing our technology to accelerate our mining, refining and recycling of magnets and heavy rare earths which are critical for the energy transition, advanced manufacturing and defence.”
Rare earths are progressively attracting more public interest, being both an important critical material, vital for the UK’s roll-out of renewable energy and electric vehicles, and developing a secure, reliable supply chain has become an issue of national strategic importance.
The global context is complex, with rapid demand growth significantly outstripping supply chain capacity, and difficulties in extracting these materials. This exposes the UK to a volatile geopolitical situation with risks of possible supply shortages and spiralling prices with the potential to ultimately impact advanced manufacturing in the UK.
Mr Kelly is confident that Ionic Technologies can rapidly deliver solutions to these challenges:
“We are an innovative UK business ready to use our expertise to grow rapidly in a vital industry. Our business model is firmly focused on the circular economy. As we expand, we anticipate recycling end-of-life wind turbines, used electric vehicle components and MRI equipment. By producing high purity rare earths from these types of secondary sources, we will help create a more sustainable route for the UK to achieve its net zero ambitions.”
“From our UK facility in Belfast, Ionic Technologies is demonstrating that we have capability to meet the growing domestic demand for rare earth elements, and global expansion potential. We are working with supply chain partners to establish resilient and secure networks of these critical components for the clean energy technologies vital to deliver the UK’s decarbonisation and net zero future.”