Setting up microfactories to recycle e-waste

20 Nov 2016 | By Ramya

Several studies revealed old cellphones, tablets, computers and other electronic waste could be converted into "gold mines".

Veena Sahajwalla, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at the University of New South Wales, explained how we could make use of e-waste.

Her solution involves microfactory: a recycling and reclamation system, small and efficient enough to be set up across the globe.

In context: Recovering riches from electronic waste

20 Nov 2016Setting up microfactories to recycle e-waste

Veena Sahajwalla's statement

"If everyone has to do it (converting e-waste into valuable materials), we can't think about large smelters - we need to see this as decentralized and distributed manufacturing, where the resource and inputs are things that we all hold in our hands."
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E-wasteAmounts of valuable materials found in each phone are small

Microfactories enable local recycling of electronic waste and could be apt into manufacturing systems using reclaimed resources.

E-waste consists of metals like iron, silver, gold, copper, platinum, palladium, rare earth elements, glass, and plastic.

Amounts found in each phone are small - 0.034 gm of gold - but they quickly add up considering that over 42 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2014.

MicrofactoriesPre-programmed automated drones would pick circuit boards from e-waste

Reportedly, most of the e-waste is shipped around the world for processing in places like Guiyi in Southeastern China - one of the most polluted places in the world.

According to Sahajwalla's vision of the microfactories, pre-programmed automated drones would pick out circuit boards or other such items from e-waste.

The boards are then put into a small furnace to extract valuable materials.

Microrecycling, the new scientific paradigm

Veena Sahajwalla said, "Microrecycling is the new scientific paradigm. Conventional recycling works for the macro-scale but we need to look at the micro-scale, for example where you have mixtures of copper and nickel and zinc together."

Valuable resourcesMicrofactories create jobs and local resources

Sahajwalla said microfactories create jobs and local resources; they create entirely new small-scale industries by using the resource outputs.

They also give existing small businesses the chance to carve new niches.

She said small-to-medium enterprises, hungry for innovative solutions, have given good feedback.

Embedded resources from e-waste are expected to be worth $52 billion; extracting them from the earth is harder compared to e-waste.

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Easy ApproachMicrofactories make extracting rare earth elements from e-waste easy

Microfactories make extracting rare earth elements from e-waste easy compared to previous approaches.

In e-waste materials like hard-drives, rare earth elements are combined with iron, which aren't easily recyclable.

Sahajwalla wants to make the energy inputs into the microfactories as sustainable as possible.

Avoiding the energy-intensive transportation of waste in the world, she sees the microfactories as the embodiment of decentralized and distributed marketing.