e-waste microfactory set to charge new recycling industry


The world’s first microfactory that can transform the components from electronic waste (e-waste) items such as discarded smart phones and laptops into valuable materials for re-use has been launched at UNSW, Sydney.

Using technology developed following research at UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre), the e-waste microfactory has the potential to reduce the rapidly growing problem of vast amounts of electronic waste causing environmental harm and going into landfill.

UNSW’s modular microfactories can operate on a site as small as 50 square metres and can be located wherever waste may be stockpiled. A microfactory is one or a series of small machines and devices that uses patented technology to perform one or more functions in the reforming of waste products into new and usable resources.

The e-waste microfactory that reforms discarded computers, mobile phones and printers has a number of small modules for this process and fits into a small site. The discarded devices are first placed into a module to break them down. The next module may involve a special robot for the identification of useful parts. Another module then involves using a small furnace which transforms these parts into valuable materials by using a precisely controlled temperature process developed via extensive research.

These transformed materials include metal alloys and a range of micromaterials. The micromaterials can be used in industrial-grade ceramics while the specific quality plastics from computers, printers and other discarded sources can be put through another module that produces filaments suitable for 3D-printing applications, while the metal alloys can be used as metal components for new or existing manufacturing processes.

SMaRT Centre Director, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, said the e-waste microfactory was the first of a series of microfactories under development and in testing at UNSW that can also turn many types of consumer waste such as glass, plastic and timber into commercial materials and products.

For instance, from e-waste, computer circuit boards can be transformed into valuable metal alloys such as copper and tin while glass and plastic from e-devices can be converted into micromaterials used in industrial grade ceramics and plastic filaments for 3D printing.

“Our e-waste microfactory and another under development for other consumer waste types offer a cost-effective solution to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our age, while delivering new job opportunities to our cities but importantly to our rural and regional areas, too,” Professor Sahajwalla said.

“Using our green manufacturing technologies, these microfactories can transform waste where it is stockpiled and created, enabling local businesses and communities to not only tackle local waste problems but to develop a commercial opportunity from the valuable materials that are created.”

Professor Sahajwalla said microfactories presented a solution to burning and burying waste items that contain materials which can be transformed into value-added substances and products to meet existing and new industry and consumer demands. This was a truly sustainable solution to our growing waste problem, she said, while offering economic benefits available to local communities.

“We have proven you can transform just about anything at the micro-level and transform waste streams into value-added products. For example, instead of looking at plastics as just a nuisance, we’ve shown scientifically that you can generate materials from that waste stream to create smart filaments for 3D printing,” she said.

“These microfactories can transform the manufacturing landscape, especially in remote locations where typically the logistics of having waste transported or processed are prohibitively expensive. This is especially beneficial for the island markets and the remote and regional regions of the country.”

UNSW has developed the technology with support from the Australian Research Council and is now in partnership with a number of businesses and organisations including e-waste recycler TES, mining manufacturer Moly-Cop, and Dresden which makes spectacles.

While the SMaRT Centre is expanding its partnerships with industry, investors and local councils, the challenge is to commercialise and create incentives for industry to take up this technology – and to change behaviour – as societies and communities around the world seek to be more sustainable.

More information is at http://smart.unsw.edu.au/

Photo: Gabrielle Upton, NSW Minister for the Environment and Professor Veena Sahajwalla at the launch of the world’s first e-waste microfactory. Photo: Quentin Jones.

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