Magnetic Field CC BY2010 Windell Oskay

Have you ever wondered how are magnets produced? Since we started working for ReFresh, we began thinking about the origins of the materials we use. We are questioning how sustainable it is working with those. So we asked ourselves: where do magnets come from?

We found out that there are two types of magnets: Ferrite and Neodymium. The major difference between them is their power. Neodymium is six times stronger than Ferrite. That’s why it is preferably used in generators, like wind turbines, to produce more energy and save space.

Yet there is one big downside of the production of neodymium magnets. Most of it comes from China, which mines about 90% of the world’s production. And what they do to get the rare-earth from their land is quite the opposite of environmentally friendly. They turn their fields into wastelands. Poisonous chemicals get into the soil and water. People and animals suffer from illness and cancer.

This also made me think of wind turbines, which use neodymium magnets. Yes, wind energy is better for the environment than fossil fuels. But the materials turbines are made of are not. So we happily build hundreds and thousands of wind turbines all across our countries. Believing we only do good for our environment without even having the production of it on the radar. While saving one part of nature, we destroy another…

Windfarm in Wolcott, Indiana CC BY 2012 Daniel X. O'Neil

Luckily, scientists constantly develop new technologies that can be used instead. For instance, Hitachi Ltd created an electrical motor that does not use rare-earth materials. Yet it still has 93% efficiency. In physics class, I learned that you can easily turn an electrical motor into a generator, too. Thus this technology can be used in as generators as well.

Comparing the impact on our environment and costs of Neodymium and Ferrite. Ferrite clearly wins since it is made of ceramic materials and Iron(III) oxide. The production of those materials are far less dirty and cheaper. For that reason we chose to buy ferrite magnet for our bottle cap magnets. Sometimes, we find neodymium magnets lying on the street (e.g. in electronic devices or even in packaging of rolling papers). Of course, we are going to reuse them.

When it comes to materials like rare-earth, recycling is very important. But we should not only concentrate on the last resort. Reducing the amount of waste is the first measure. In this case, if you have the option between Neo magnets or the classical one, choose the latter.


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