Cyclic in the News

The Canadian City Betting on Recycling Rare Earths for the Energy Transition

Chris Arsenault / Climate Home News
May 28, 2024
Cyclic Materials CEO and co-founder Ahmad Ghahreman at the company’s warehouse (Credit: Ian Willms / Panos Pictures)

As countries scramble to secure critical minerals, Kingston’s burgeoning clean tech ecosystem is attracting startups to create circular supply chains and reduce reliance on China.

Inside a sprawling warehouse in Kingston, Ontario, in Central Canada, a forklift beeps past huge cardboard boxes full of discarded electric vehicle motors, stripped down copper wires and the rusty brown innards of old MRI machines.

All await the same fate: being crunched into a powder so their critical minerals can be extracted.

As countries scramble to secure supplies of the raw materials they need to manufacture wind turbines, batteries and other technologies key to preventing runaway climate change, this facility run by local startup Cyclic Materials is part of an emerging industry: creating a circular economy for critical energy transition minerals.

“Recycling means you get [back] the high-value stuff,” said Ahmad Ghahreman, CEO of the company, which has received funding from electric vehicle heavyweights like BMW.

The roll-out of clean energy technologies is fueling rocketing demand for critical minerals. But mining these minerals can be a dirty process which is concentrated in a handful of countries. In addition, China overwhelmingly dominates the processing of critical minerals. Concerned about this concentration, Western countries are actively seeking ways to diversify their supply chains and reduce their dependence on Beijing.

Emerging recycling technologies offer a sustainable way to shore up the supplies the world needs and reduce pressure to expand mining. For Canada, it is also part of a plan to ease Chinese imports.

Cyclic Materials’ current operations are small, but the buzz around the company is far-reaching.“We have a lot of pressure to expand… We are very excited,” said Ghahreman, a former chemistry professor at Kingston’s Queen’s University, one of Canada’s top engineering schools.

In recent years, the mid-size city known for its limestone buildings and raucous university street parties has become home to a burgeoning hub of companies and startups processing and recycling critical minerals for the North American market.

As Canada ramps up efforts to scale its supply chain to manufacture electric vehicles (EVs), Kingston’s ecosystem of cleantech companies is poised to play a pivotal role in offering alternatives to China’s grip on rare earths processing.

Rare Vision

At the Cyclic Materials plant in an industrial area, a conveyor carries metal shavings from shredded EV motors and other electronics. Amid deafening screeches of tearing metal, the shavings are broken down through a patented process to create a fine charcoal-coloured powder that the company calls Mag-Xtract, which contains rare earths.

With names like dysprosium, neodymium and terbium, there are 17 rare earth elements. These are essential for building wind turbines, EVs, advanced semiconductors, and virtually all other clean technologies, which countries need to transition their economies away from fossil fuels to net zero emissions by 2050.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates the world will need seven times more rare earths by 2040 than it does today. Yet, mining and extracting rare earths is a complex process since the ore isn’t found in concentrated deposits. Recycling them isn’t any easier – only around 1% of rare earths are currently recycled from old products.

Cyclic Materials has ambitious plans to change that. By 2035, it aims to open half a dozen rare earths recycling plants across North America, creating a regional supply chain that would enable the production of 6.3 million motors for EVs.

When it comes to recycling rare earth elements, “I think Kingston will be on the map because no one is on the map,” said Boyd Davis, co-owner of Kingston Process Metallurgy (KPM), a stalwart laboratory-for-hire which works with Cyclic Materials and supports other rare earths processing companies to set up in the city.

However, the barrier to entry for companies seeking to process rare earths...

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Image Credit: Ian Willms / Panos Pictures

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