As e-waste becomes a more and more emblematic problem for the future of waste management, the need for new more radical solutions drives innovative efforts worldwide. After Apple’s Liam, a robot that manages 1.2 million mobile phones per year, a new innovative approached attracted my attention.
Veena Sahajwalla, professor of engineering at the University of NSW, has built a prototype mini-factory at UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT). The concept is simple yet innovative: portable micro-factories, roughly the size of a shipping container, which can be deployed at collection sites in suburbs, remote communities and throughout the developing world. The prototype uses precision high-temperature reactions to produce alloys from the waste circuit boards, while also destroying toxins. Then a drone identifies the target metals from crushed e-waste and a robot extracts them before they are taken to the furnace.
Electronic waste, or “e-waste”, is full of valuable resources: a tonne of mobile phones, which is roughly equivalent to 6,000 handsets, contains about 130kg of copper, more than 3kg of silver, 340 grams of gold and 140 grams of another precious material known as palladium. Worldwide, the United Nations Environment Program estimates that the trillion-dollar electronics industry generates 42 million tonnes of obsolete equipment in 2014. A rough assessment of the resource value included in this e-waste goes to nearly $70 billion.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Sahajwalla says micro-factories will also create new business opportunities for small recyclers, who can transition from being collectors of waste to manufacturers of high-value products. These micro-factories will churn out high-value metal alloys, ceramics, composites and nanomaterials, while simultaneously eliminating any hazardous impact. As the materials already have market value, they could benefit niche manufacturers producing everything from jewellery to marine hardware.
If her team can overcome the hurdles, the benefits are clear: micro-factories decentralise recycling, allowing e-waste to be processed locally where it’s collected. This helps eliminate emissions associated with shipping the waste across huge distances to recycling plants.
The perspective of a portable decentralised solution for e-waste is definitely a promising one. Let’s hope that the fourth industrial revolution will deliver it. By the way, professor Sahajwalla has a successful track record of turning waste into productive capacity. Her invention to recycle car tyres into useable steel was successfully commercialised and has already saved more than two million tyres from entering Australian landfill.