At a laboratory inside a Google data center in Mayes County, Oklahoma, researchers spent the fall of 2019 disassembling old hard disk drives by hand in order to extract a 2-inch-long component known as the magnet assembly. Consisting of two powerful rare earth magnets, the magnet assembly is a critical muscle within the hard drive, controlling an actuator arm that allows the device to read and write data.
Over the course of six weeks, the scientists harvested 6,100 of these magnetic muscles, all of them effectively good as new. The magnets were then shipped to a hard drive manufacturing facility in Thailand, where they were placed into new drives and, eventually, redeployed to data centers around the world.
This is a far cry from what happens to the estimated 22 million hard disk drives that age out of North American data centers each year. Typically, when a data center operator swaps out old drives for new ones — as they do every three to five years — the discarded drives are unceremoniously shredded. The rare earth elements, which took significant energy and resources to mine and turn into magnets, are lost in a sea of aluminum scrap.
But for several years, Google and others in the tech industry have been quietly working to change that. Motivated by concerns about future rare earth metal supply shortages as well as the environmental toll of rare earth mining, which casts a cloud over their green credentials, tech companies, along with partners in academia and government, are exploring whether they can mine hard drives instead.
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