Researchers spent the whole fall of 2019 dismantling obsolete hard drives in the Google data center in Mayes County, Oklahoma in order to retrieve a 2-inch long component known as magnet assembly. Following the extraction, the researchers delivered thousands of old magnetic assemblies to a hard drive manufacturer so that they might be reused in new hard drives. Google’s initiative seeks to decrease the carbon footprint of hard drives by recycling rare earth magnets rather than discarding them as junk.
Recycling of hard drive initiative by Google
Two rare-earth magnets make up the magnet assembly within hard disc drives, for those who are unaware. Scientists removed 6,100 such magnetic components from hard drives over the course of six weeks and restored them to new conditions. The magnets were then shipped to Thailand, where they were installed in new hard drives before being utilized in data centers all around the world.
Unfortunately, not all magnets travel in the same direction. Every year in the United States, over 22 million hard disc drives are shredded and destroyed, meaning that rare earth magnets that required a lot of energy to mine end up in the depths of the seas alongside aluminum garbage.
Google has been attempting to influence the fate of these magnets for several years. Tech companies are now looking at ways to mine hard drives, driven by the need to preserve the world.
Until recently, these activities have mostly gone unnoticed and received little public attention. The Biden administration, on the other hand, has lately identified federal data center hard drives as a major supplier of these rare earth elements.
“Hard drive magnets are important because they contain neodymium and dysprosium, which are essential for electric vehicles and wind turbines. Of the 17 different rare earth elements, these two are currently the most important and critical.” Hongyue Jin, a scientist at the University of Arizona who studies rare earth recycling, said in a statement.
“A hard drive sitting in your computer at home requires you as the consumer to take it to a recycler,” said Kali Frost, a doctoral student in industrial sustainability at Purdue University. “Data centers are already a supply of millions of hard drives. The companies operating those data centers want to handle them in the best way possible, and increasingly, optimize them for sustainability.”
Countries such as China and the United States came up with innovative techniques to recycle hard drives in 2019, including wiping and reusing whole hard drives, grinding up old hard drive magnets, and utilizing the powder to manufacture new ones. Each of these techniques now has its own set of challenges.
However, some businesses have already begun to take action. In 2018, Google, Seagate, and Recontext, an electrical refurbisher, conducted a short test in which the magnet assemblies from six hard disc drives were removed and replaced with new ones.
According to Frost, this demonstration served as a “catalyst” for a bigger 2019 research in which 6,100 magnet assemblies were taken from Seagate hard drives in a Google data center and placed into fresh hard drives in a Seagate manufacturing facility.
This demonstrated that not only can these magnets be reused, but they may also assist the environment. The carbon footprint of the reused magnet assemblies was 86 percent lower than that of the new ones. Ines Sousa, a co-author of the new study and the supplier environmental impact program manager at Google, says there are still a few hurdles to overcome before it becomes a reality.
These include the importance of maintaining cleanliness during magnet recycling since contemporary hard drives are extremely sensitive to tiny particles, as well as the fact that new magnet designs are introduced every year. While bringing this to life is still a long way off, the actual plan of action and small steps towards it give us hope that it is not too far away.
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