Micro-Factories Recycle E-Waste into 3D Printer Material

Veena Sahajwalla, an Australian scientist at the University of New South Wales, has developed micro-factories the size of shipping containers to process e-waste and convert it into 3D printer filaments.  The project is going on in New South Wales in Australia.

Australian ‘micro-factories’ turn e-waste into high-value 3D printer filament

As electronic waste (or e-waste) continues to pile up in landfills around the world, one Australian scientist may have a viable solution for this mounting environmental threat. According to Veena Sahajwalla, a materials scientist at the University of New South Wales, “we are all micro mine owners.” When considering the millions of electronic hardware devices we toss out each year, Sahajwalla’s proclamation becomes less of a hyperbole, and more literal fact. E-waste, it turns out, is choc full of valuable resources: a ton of cell phones, or about 6,000 individual devices, breaks down to about 130 kg of copper, 3 kg of silver, 340 g of gold, and 140 g of palladium.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “We have almost 25 million mobile phones just in Australia,” says Sahajwalla. “And these are the ones not in use.” When you take into account the vast numbers of discarded televisions, computers, tablets, and other appliances as well, the numbers are staggering. And that’s not even considering one of the largest global producers: according to the UN Environment Program, the US $1 trillion global electronics industry generated about 42 million tons of obsolete electronics equipment in 2014 alone, adding up to a potential loss of up to $52 billion worth of embedded resource. What does it all boil down to? As Sahajwalla argues, it’s high time for us do some environmental cleanup, and cash in while we’re at it.

The answer, at least as far as the University of New South Wales is concerned, is a resoundingly 3D printing-inspired approach. As part of the Australian Research Council laureate fellowship, Sahajwalla and her colleagues recently established the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT), where they are currently working to making e-waste processing safer and more profitable. For the moment, those efforts are geared towards prototyping a low-cost alternative to industrial-scale smelting. Sahajwalla calls them “micro-factories,” and they’re about the size of a shipping container. Inside, a combination of robotic arms and automated drones sort e-waste into separate parts such as glass screens, printed circuit boards, and plastic casings. A proprietary SMaRT centre visual identification program assists in the process, which effectively transforms trash into treasure.

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