REEcycle develops process to extract rare earth elements from old electronics

May 9, 2017
| By: Aubrey Bloom

McNeilWhen Casey McNeil and the rest of the REEcycle team were competing at the 2016 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition (TNVC), they had received some positive feedback, but still weren’t sure they were going to receive funding from the National Science Foundation.

Now, a year later, the team has not only received funding, but is closing in on opening a pilot production facility in Houston.

“We’ve recently made a few new developments to the process that we’re excited about and are filing additional patents around,” McNeil said. “While we continue to file patents in that family, we’re also keeping a few things as trade secrets obviously to keep some areas close to the vest. The technology continues to be on track and is scaling well.”

McNeil is the CEO and one of three co-founders of the company, along with Cassandra Hoang and Susan Tran, all three of whom are graduates of the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business. REEcycle, with “REE” being an acronym for rare earth elements, uses a patented process to recover such elements, specifically Neodymium and Dysprosium, from electronic devices.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, China produces more than 95 percent of the world’s supply of these elements, and less than 1 percent of them are recycled. The REEcycle team believes bringing a low-cost way to recycle these elements to the market is not only more sustainable compared to mining, but that establishing a supply of these elements domestically is critical.

“Rare earth elements are critical to the manufacturing of magnets that are used in our hard drives, cell phones, electric cars and wind turbines,” McNeil said. “We produce the oxide, which is a critical and key component to those materials, but they aren’t actually the magnets. So although we aren’t making the magnets ourselves, we are partnering with two different groups to get closer to producing those magnets here in the States, which would be a major step in the right direction for national defense and domestic manufacturing purposes.”

With their winnings from the TNVC, the group focused on designing systems for dismantling hard drives, another potential source for rare elements that would otherwise be considered waste. Currently, those hard drives are being shredded because there is no cost-effective method of extracting the elements. McNeil said they’ve now put together a process that will be deployed over the next year to more efficiently capture these materials before they are shredded.

“We will be using these systems not only to remove the magnets that we’re after, but also to be able to utilize the other materials that are in those drives,” he said. “There’s high-grade aluminum and other materials that are in those drives that would be great to capture if we could do it cost effectively, and that’s exactly what our system is doing. We’re really excited about the secondary business model that’s come out of that opportunity.”

McNeil said that like many startup competitions, TNVC was a good opportunity for their team to sit down and reflect on their business plan, something they often don’t have time to do. He also said that the interaction with the potential investors is always invaluable.

“You really have a crash course board of advisors sitting in front of you across two different panels, so it’s really interesting to see the feedback they have and why they think your baby is ugly or why they think your baby is beautiful,” he said. “Hearing their advice and their criticisms and whatever it might be is extremely helpful.”

More than other competitions they have attended, McNeil was impressed by the competition at TNVC.

"We’ve done a few competitions in the past, and I’ll say I strongly believe the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition did a tremendous job of pulling together some of the highest caliber competitors that we’ve ever seen,” he said.

He mentioned that it was good to talk to other startups and build those relationships, but also used it as a measuring stick to see where their company compared from a progress standpoint--something that didn’t happen as much at other competitions.

“When you’re around top competition like that and seeing what people are working on and how they’re presenting it and how they’re planning around their business model, that’s always a very inspirational thing. I think that was our biggest takeaway,” McNeil said. “And relative to other competitions where you run into many student teams that maybe aren’t as far along or they’re still in the business plan stage and there’s really not a lot of substance there, it’s hard to judge what the validity of a company is. We really liked how established the teams were at Texas A&M New Ventures.”

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