The Modular Microfactory Extracting Value From Electronic Waste

World’s first microfactory recycles reusable materials

How many old mobile phones do you have tucked away in a drawer? Most of us replace our electronic devices every few years – in fact, the industry often forces us to do so. But what happens to all the old laptops, televisions and gadgets when we move on to newer models? For many, they end up in landfill. This not only pollutes the environment with harmful compounds, but also wastes the valuable materials from which they are made. As the world becomes increasingly computerised and device oriented, we need viable solutions to recycling our electronics waste. A microfactory at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) might just have the answer.

From waste products to new products

With support from the Australian Research Council, UNSW has developed a prototype microfactory to turn electronics waste into reusable materials. Discarded electronic devices such as computers, mobile phones and printers are collected and robotically processed in the microfactory. In a modular system, the devices are first broken down before being sorted by a special robot. Any useful components are placed into a furnace which subjects them to precisely controlled temperatures, thereby extracting valuable materials including metal alloys and a range of micromaterials.

Saving the valuable metals that are used in computer circuitry, such as copper, gold and aluminium, is practical on both an economic and environmental level. The cost of these finite resources will only increase as the world demands more computer products, making recycling a viable business option. What’s more, disposing of metal alloys in an uncontrolled way often leads to the release of toxic compounds into the environment. Crucially, the UNSW microfactory has also found a use for the plastics that are also found in our devices. One of the factory’s modules is capable of transforming specific plastics into filaments for use in 3D printing.

A localised solution

The electronic waste factory is the first in a series of factories in development at the university’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology , known as SMaRT. They aim to create microfactories to recycle a broader range of consumer waste including plastic, glass and timber, for reuse in commercial products. Whilst the outcomes of this project are laudable – saving materials from landfill and making the most of our finite resources – the structure of these microfactories is in itself beneficial.

Due to their modular set up, the microfactories can operate on sites as small as 50 square metres. The different stages in the system can be tailored to those materials being processed, saving space and improving efficiency. The small size of the microfactories means that they can be easily set up wherever waste is created or stockpiled. This creates local commercial opportunities as well as dealing with waste problems at their source. It benefits remote and rural areas who face prohibitive logistical costs in transporting their waste, and answers the increasing demand for communities to deal with their rubbish themselves.

Cost effective recycling

Breaking down unwanted consumer products into their constituent materials will only ever be viable if it is cost effective. Microfactories like those in development at UNSW keep costs low, whilst extracting valuable materials for use in new and useable resources. Partnerships with businesses may prove key to the success of these recycling hubs – an avenue that UNSW has already pursued with their connections to electronics waste recycling company TES, mining manufacturer Moly-Cop, and the glasses manufacturer Dresden. By attracting the support of both governments and commercial businesses, projects such as UNSW’s microfactories show that technology can provide cost effective solutions to environmental problems. Safeguarding the future of our planet is going to be an uphill struggle, but technological developments such as these prove that there are ways of making a difference.

Are small scale recycling plants the answer to our waste problems? How do you dispose of your electrical waste? Should individuals, governments or businesses lead the drive towards recycling?

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