Information and Communication Technology has enabled the transformation to information based society by overcoming the barriers imposed by time, distance, location and constraints inherent in human capacities to process information and make decisions. ICT equipment at the basic level comprises of software and supporting hardware necessary for sensing, storing (and retrieving), processing, transmitting, receiving and securing digital information. The current ICT equipment and telecommunication networks are not energy efficient. That includes Desktop and Laptop PCS, Printers, scanners, copiers, projectors, Smart phones, PDAs, desktop phones, Wireless and connected routers, hubs, and other networking equipment, mail servers, file servers, firewalls, databases etc., Data Centres and the equipment in them.
Consumer electronics constitute a rapidly increasing source of waste. Cell phones, tablets and the like are typically made of non-renewable, non-biodegradable, partly environmentally toxic materials. A report from United Nations University (UNU) found that the world produced 41.8 million metric tons of e-waste in 2014 – an amount that would fill 1.15 million 18-wheel trucks. Lined up, those trucks would stretch from New York to Tokyo and back. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 15-20% of e-waste is recycled, the rest of these electronics go directly into landfills and incinerators.
The world produces close to 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year as consumers and businesses throw out their old smartphones, computers and household appliances – material worth an estimated $62.5 billion (EUR 55 billion or roughly Rs. 4,40,000 crores). Only a small percentage of the refuse, which contains valuable and reusable materials such as metals and rare earth elements vital for electronics, is ever recycled.
Legislation and recycling channels for this waste are organised in many countries, thanks to extended producer responsibility systems, but currently only 20% is recycled in a certified process . In addition, of the sixty chemical elements present in electronic waste, only a minority is recycled, ten in number: gold, silver, platinum, cobalt, tin, copper, iron, aluminium and lead. Everything else ends up in fine wasted in landfills.
There is also future challenge of recycling of Batteries. The International Energy Agency IEA expects 125 million E-cars in 2030 compared to around 3 million today, Fortum reports. Britain recently announced its intention to completely ban the sale of cars that run on petrol, diesel or gas as from 2030. Given the ambitions of Europe, among others, for a CO2-neutral world, it is quite possible that other countries might also do the same.
The United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, among the rich and powerful gathered in Davos in Jan 2018, launched the first global call for action to counter what is the fastest growing waste stream on the planet. “This is needed because if things don’t change by 2050 we will have 120 million tonnes per year of e-waste,” Ruediger Kuehr, programme director at United Nations University and an expert in e-waste, told AFP.
“That’s not too far from today. It will have an impact on our resource availability and it’s impacting the lives of many, many people, especially in developing countries.” Only 20 percent of electronics are currently recycled, with millions of tonnes ending up in landfills, wrongly mixed with metal waste, or illegally exported to poorer countries for a fee.
In 2016 alone, 435,000 tonnes of phones were discarded, despite containing billions of dollars’ worth of materials. Just as plastic waste has become a hot-button issue in recent years, organisers of the call for a “global reboot” on e-waste hope governments, businesses and consumers will explore ways of reusing or repurposing electronics to limit the environmental fallout. Kuehr said better collection networks of e-waste would have a significant impact, as would tech users properly disposing of their gadgets, rather than stuffing them in drawers and cabinets when a new generation comes out.
Electronic waste isn’t just waste, it contains some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants. When the latter are burned at low temperatures they create additional toxins, such as halogenated dioxins and furans – some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. The toxic materials in electronics can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and many other health problems if this waste stream is not properly managed.
E-waste also has a significant impact on health: although it represents only 2 percent of solid waste in landfill, it accounts for up to 70 percent of the hazardous material there. Developing nations such as Nigeria and Pakistan import e-waste for a fee, and an informal economy has grown up as people comb through shipments for items to resell — potentially exposing them to danger. “We are shipping our excess equipment to developing countries in order to make a little bit of money out of it and we see a lot of environmental and health consequences from it,” said Kuehr.
Recycling electronic waste means separating materials, molecules or chemical elements, so that they can be sold as raw materials for the manufacture of new products. First you have to dismantle the devices and components, sort them, grind them, and finally separate the materials, most often by incineration and then by solution based chemical processes.
Getting more chemicals from the urban mine is easier said than done. Electronic waste is very varied in nature and is often mixed with other types of wastes. The composition of the waste to be treated therefore varies from one shovel of waste incinerator’s ash or from one batch of waste to another. This contrasts with the exploitation of a “traditional” mine where the composition of the ore is much simpler and constant, at least in comparison.
Recycling used laptops not only helps reduce the amount of e-waste that could end up in landfills, but it also helps worldwide mineral processing companies that re-purpose metals and minerals from electronic scrap. This practice is less expensive and more productive than mining.
The average smartphone contains up to 60 elements, mainly metals, that are prized in the electronics industry for their high conductivity and clarity. So-called rare earth materials used in batteries and camera lenses are increasingly expensive to mine and only exist in a handful of places on Earth. Yet there is 100 times more gold, for example, in a tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore — it’s simply a case of creating enough demand for recycled materials, according to Kuehr. “If recyclers are tasked with recycling close to 100 percent of materials in electronics they will do their best to do so,” he said.
“At the moment they don’t because there’s no demand for it — resource prices do still allow for mining in the ground. Technologically it’s doable to recycle nearly all (metals in phones and computers) but it’s not economically feasible yet and we need economies of scale.” As well as old-generation phones and laptops, areas of e-waste are growing as society becomes increasingly electrified: toys, medical equipment, furniture and most automotive parts now contain some electronic material that could be harvested and reused. The chemist is faced with an extremely complex separation problem. This partly explains why the recycling industry is currently focusing on the most concentrated or economically attractive metals to recover.
New strategy: dismantle, sort, grind, dissolve
Sorting aims to minimize the chemical complexity of the mixture to be treated, as well as its variability. It can be done at all scales: that of the device (type, generation), of its modules (printed circuits, batteries, external envelopes, frames, etc.), of their elementary electronic components (cables, resistances, capacities, chips, bare boards etc.), or even at the level of the powder resulting from grinding, which can be carried out on all the scales described.
The complete disassembly of devices is theoretically the most effective approach. But, due to the multiplicity and complexity of equipment, it’s difficult to automate this step: disassembly is still mainly carried out manually, which means that its cost is often too high to allow sorting down to the level of the elementary components.
Consequently, the most common approach among recyclers (MTB, Paprec, Véolia), before any chemical treatment, is the grinding at the scale of the device or its modules, followed by steps of separation of the particles by physical methods using the differences in densities or magnetic properties. Depending on the purity of the powders obtained, thermal or chemical treatments are then used to refine the composition of the final products.
In the latter case, the most used process of separation in solution of chemical elements is the so-called liquid-liquid extraction. It usually consists first of dissolving the metals or their oxides in an acid (for example nitric acid), then making an emulsion, that is to say the equivalent of a French vinaigrette. The acid solution (“vinegar”) is vigorously mixed with an organic solvent (such as kerosene, “oil”) in an extraction column and one or more molecules (“mustard”) having the property of promoting the transfer of certain metals (“flavours”) from acid to solvent. As this separation step is rarely perfect, it is repeated in series in order to reach the desired purity levels. Several dozen, even several hundred, successive extractions are sometimes necessary to achieve the desired purity.
Optimising the costs and efficiency of such processes requires the study of the influence of a very large number of parameters (for example, the concentrations of chemical species, acidity, temperature, etc.) in order to define the combination which represents the best compromise.
New processes to increase the recycling rate
In the laboratory SCARCE, we are working on new processes which will ultimately allow “ increase the number of chemical elements recycled and increase their recycling rates: on the one hand with mechanical processes (automation of disassembly and sorting), on the other hand with chemical extraction processes in solution.
For example, as we have seen, the chemical composition of electronic waste is very variable. The development of an extraction process, for a specific chemical composition, can easily take five to ten years of research and optimization and the adaptation of an existing process to a new composition (for example a new metal) requires several months to several years. This is hardly compatible with the volumes of waste, the resources and the time available for recycling waste.
To reduce the time and cost of developing new extraction processes, we have miniaturized and integrated in a single device microfluidics automated all the equipment necessary for a process study. In a microfluidic device, the piping is smaller than a millimetre (in our case 100 µm thick, the thickness of two hairs or less). This allows very small amounts of material to be used: a few microliters of solvents and acids instead of millilitres, and a few milligrams of chemical compounds instead of grams. With the integration of analysis methods (X-rays, infrared and sensors), we can study the different combinations of parameters continuously, automatically and quickly. This allows us to do a study in a few days which can normally take up to several months.
Additional advantage of microfluidics compared to a conventional device: we better understand the phenomena of transfers of chemical elements at the interface between water and oil. Indeed, we control both the exchange surface between water and oil thanks to the use of a porous membranes, as well as the contact time between the two phases, which are pushed into the microfluidic channels using computer controlled syringe pumps. Material flows can then be calculated precisely.
This approach recently allowed us to study the extraction of strategic metals found in mobile phones. These metals, essential in modern technologies, are produced mainly in China and are little recycled at present – under 5%. This is all the more unfortunate as their production is very expensive and can pose societal and environmental problems.
Our results show that the combination of two specific extracting molecules makes it possible to extract rare earths with an efficiency almost 100 times greater than the efficiency of extractions with the molecules used separately. In addition, we have demonstrated efficient extraction at acid concentrations 10 to 100 times lower than those used in industry, which generates less pollution. We have also identified combinations of parameters that make it possible to separate the rare earths much more efficiently from each other, which is conventionally very difficult to achieve in a few steps. We are now studying the transposition of these results, obtained on a very small scale, to that of the industrial production tool.
Finally, our microfluidic approach is modular which means that each of the modules can find its usefulness in other cases, for example, the liquid-liquid extraction module can be useful for the study of processes of extraction of organic molecules (essential oils); or the infrared spectroscopy module for online monitoring of agrifood or pharmaceutical processes. It allows you to determine the amount of unbound water – it is the water that surrounds the molecules that are dissolved in it, but that do not interact with them, a key parameter to follow in many formulations of these industries.
Fortum claims breakthrough in recycling lithium-ion batteries
Finnish energy group Fortum claims to have found a new and efficient way to recycle lithium out of rechargeable batteries. This could help satisfy the rapidly rising demand for electric cars and batteries. How the recycling technology actually works is not something that Holländer reveals, but he does mention that it involves a new patent. “This is an important development that will help in meeting and stimulating the enormous demand for electric cars,” says Holländer. “With this technology, we will be able to recover lithium from electric car batteries in a more sustainable way.”
In addition to recovering lithium, Fortum also works on the reuse of other rare raw materials in batteries. These include cobalt, nickel, and manganese. In 2019, Fortum reported that it was able to reuse 80% of the raw materials in a battery. This is being done in a factory in Harjavalta in Finland. This is where it also wants to set up a recycling cluster together with German Basf and the Russian Nornickel.
Holländer: “Our new technology means that we are able to position Europe, and Finland in particular, as one of the most competitive and sustainable places in the world for the recycling and production of battery materials.”
According to Fortum, the world market for recycling lithium-ion batteries was still relatively small at 1.3 billion euros in 2019. But this is expected to increase to more than 20 billion euros over the coming years thanks to the ever-increasing number of electric vehicles on the road.
Move to biodegradable Electronics to reduce e-waste
However, recycling alone is not an effective solution of the growing e-waste crisis. For example in 2016 there was a lot of fanfare around the unveiling of Liam, a robot capable of dismantling an iPhone in just 11 seconds; an ultra-efficient way to recycle 1.2 million units a year. That sounds impressive until you take into account the fact that Apple had actually sold 231 million new iPhones the year before, Vianney Vaute in Forbes
To overcome this challenge, Researchers have started developing Nontoxic Bio degradable materials and vanishing electronics that will be better for the environment. Transient materials is an emerging area of materials design with the key attribute being the ability to physically dissolve into the surrounding environment at a well-controlled rate, with minimum or non-traceable remains, after a period of stable operation.
Transient materials have potential applications in zero-waste environment, bioelectronics, military and defense data security, hardware-secure memory modules, and sensors, to name few examples.