Can You Recycle a Hard Drive? Google Is Trying to Find Out

This story was originally published on Grist, and is part the Climate Desk collaboration.Researchers spent the fall 2019 in a lab in a Google data centre in Mayes County in Oklahoma disassembling hard drives manually in order to find a 2-inch long component called the magnet assembly. The magnet assembly, which is composed of two powerful rare earth magnets, is an essential muscle in the hard drive. It controls the actuator arm, which allows it to read and write data.Six weeks later, 6,100 magnetic muscles were harvested by the scientists. All of them are as good as new. The magnets were then sent to Thailand to be manufactured into hard drives. There they were installed in new drives and eventually redeployed to other data centers around the globe.This is far from the reality of what happens to the 22 million hard drives that eventually die in North American data centers every year. The drives that are discarded by data center operators are usually thrown away unceremoniously. Rare-earth elements are hard to find and require a lot of energy and resources to mine and make into magnets. They end up in aluminum scrap.Google and other tech companies have worked quietly for many years to change this. Concerns about future shortages of rare-earth metals and the environmental impact of rare-earth mines, as well as concerns over how this will affect their green credentials, have prompted tech companies to explore whether they could instead mine hard drives. These efforts have not received much public attention until now. These efforts may be given a boost by the Biden administration. It recently highlighted government data center hard drives in the US as a potential source of rare-earth elements America requires not only for data storage devices or consumer electronics but also for energy technologies critical to combating climate change.Hard drive magnets are crucial because they contain neodymium or dysprosium which are vital for electric vehicles and windmills, Hongyue Jin, an Arizona scientist who studies rare-earth recycle, explained to Grist. These two elements are the most critical and important of all the rare-earth elements.These elements can be found in data centers, which are the warehouses of computers that make up the internet's physical backbone. They are the biggest consumers of hard drives in the world, and are also the most important end users of rare-earth magnetics. Data center operators follow strict guidelines for disposing of hard disk drives that have reached their end of life. This is in contrast to personal computers which can collect dust in basements.Kali Frost, a Purdue University doctoral student in industrial sustainability, stated that if you have a hard drive in your home computer, you must take it to a recycler. There are millions of hard drives in data centers. Companies that manage these data centers are keen to optimize their sustainability and handle them in the most efficient way.Nearly 17 percent of all hard drive drives are produced in the USA, the largest global share. Researchers have calculated that if all these data storage devices could be recycled, it would supply more than 5 per cent of all rare-earth magnetic demand outside of China. This could help meet the needs of both the information technology and clean energy sectors. Researchers from the US, as well as hardware companies and electronic waste recyclers, have recently started exploring how rare earths can possibly be reharvested and given new life.