RSN Recommends Regulatory Enforcement, Investor Engagement to Urge Corporate Due Diligence on Conflict Minerals

The Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), is a project of the nonprofit organization As You Sow, dedicated to ending human rights abuses and forced labor associated with the raw materials found in consumer products. On October 18, 2018, RSN released its Mining the Disclosures 2018: An Investor Guide to Conflict Minerals Reporting in Year Five report, which “analyzes 206 companies’ supply chain due diligence efforts regarding conflict minerals, including tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, or 3TG. In the fifth consecutive year of analyzing companies’ conflict minerals compliance and reporting, the report shows that a large number of the companies’ scores stayed flat or decreased.”

Read the full press release at https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/press-release-mtd-2018. You can download this year’s report, those from previous years, and watch a webinar about the 2018 report at https://www.sourcingnetwork.org/mining-the-disclosures.

Cover of the Mining the Disclosures report

According to RSN, “The technology sector outperformed all others, while laggard industries included integrated oil & gas, steel, business services, and building materials. Innovative companies showed constant improvements, including increased participation in on-the-ground initiatives, proactive risk assessments, and comprehensive risk mitigation measures. However, compared to 2017, a majority of companies’ scores that reflect alignment with the OECD’S Conflict Minerals Guidance declined. The results show a global lack of desire to improve due diligence practices over the last few years.

“Conflict minerals” include tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (aka 3TG). They are so called because these minerals are often sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, and in recent years, unfortunately also one of the most war-torn. Militant groups controlling mines have used violence, including murder, torture, rape and other sexual violence, forced labor and use of child soldiers, in their control of the populace to further their profit from sale of these minerals and their war efforts. Conflict minerals are used in a wide variety of electronic devices, and are also found in a variety of other products, including jewelry, dental products, tools, biocides, ammunition, medical devices, and others. For more information, see https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_resource#Conflict_minerals.

Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Action, passed in 2010 and implemented starting in 2012 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, requires that all companies publicly traded in the the US with products containing any of the four conflict minerals report on the source of the minerals in their supply chain. This required transparency has not eliminated human rights issues associated with conflict mineral sourcing, but it has demonstrably improved conditions for Congolese miners. Before passage of the law, the UN reported that nearly every mine in Congo was controlled by armed groups. As of 2016, the independent research institute, International Peace Information Service (IPIS) found that 79% of “3T” miners surveyed in eastern Congo were working in mines where no armed group involvement had been reported. (See https://enoughproject.org/special-topics/progress-and-challenges-conflict-minerals-facts-dodd-frank-1502).

RSN cites the Trump administration’s “contempt for regulations” and threats made last year to “suspend Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act” as part of the reason for the decline in corporate due diligence related to conflict minerals sourcing. “The disregard of corporate responsibility for conflict minerals during the Trump administration is concerning,” said Raphaël Deberdt, author of the Mining the Disclosures 2018 report. “The increasing neglect of the conflict minerals legislation from some companies over the past few years has been a source of human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And these abuses extend beyond the 3TG sphere.

According the RSN press release: ‘Companies involved in mineral supply chains — from mines to retailers — now face additional challenges that must be integrated into corporate risk mitigation frameworks. The increasing importance of cobalt, lithium, and nickel in the automotive and technology sectors should trigger red flags in compliance departments in a broader risk context, including environmental degradation, organizational health and safety, human rights, and community impacts. Similarly, the upcoming EU regulation will necessitate increased due diligence from importers of 3TG, not only from the Congo region, but from all conflict-affected and high-risks areas. “The results of this year’s report demonstrate the need for an increase in regulatory enforcement and investor engagement that urge companies to undertake proactive due diligence efforts,” said Patricia Jurewicz, vice president of Responsible Sourcing Network. “These programs must continuously improve to address and mitigate the evolving material risks associated with conflict mineral supply chains.”

RSN further asserted that “leading companies” such as Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Qualcomm, Ford, Royal Philips, and HP “prove that taking a due diligence approach to reduce harmful impacts on the communities producing the raw materials in our electronics is an achievable and beneficial business model.

The Mining the Disclosures report was sponsored by As You Sow and the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), which is holding its annual conference on October 31-November 2, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA.

 

3D Printing Potential Negative Impacts–Five Resources

Additive manufacturing, more commonly referred to as 3D printing, is an increasingly widespread technology in schools, libraries, and other public makerspaces, often seen as a part of STEAM education. Manufacturers and innovators see the technology as means to create products or necessary items cheaply and relatively quickly, and in many cases with less waste of material than in other manufacturing processes–see for example, the MIT Technology Review article on GE’s use of additive manufacturing to produce fuel nozzles for aircraft engines. In developing nations, 3D printing can offer a means to more easily provide items that add to quality of life at a lower cost than typical. For example, the Victoria Hand project 3D prints prosthetics to assist amputees. 

With so much positive potential, what could possibly be the downsides of 3D printing?  While negative impacts might not be immediately obvious, sustainability advocates must always consider all potential impacts of a technology, product, or action, both positive and negative. The following resources are a good start for considering the often overlooked potential negative impacts of 3D printing.

  • The Health Effects of 3D Printing. This October 2016 article from American Libraries Magazine discusses exposure to ultrafine particles (UFPs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and the risks of bacterial growth in small fissures found within 3D printed objects. The authors provide some very basic tips for reducing risks to patrons and library staff members.
  • 3-D printing: A Boon or Bane? Though a bit dated, this article by Robert Olson, a senior fellow at the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, VA, in the November/December 2013 issue of the Environmental Forum (the policy journal of the Environmental Law Institute) does a good job of outlining some of the issues that need to be considered when assessing the impacts or appropriateness of this technology. “How efficient are these technologies in the use of materials and energy? What materials are used and what are the worker exposure and environmental impacts? Does the design of printed objects reduce end-of-life options? Does more localized production reduce the carbon footprint? And will simplicity and ubiquity cause us to overprint things, just as we do with paper?
  • The dark side of 3D printing: 10 things to watch. This 2014 article by Lyndsey Gilpin for Tech Republic concisely outlines ten potential negative impacts, such as the reliance on plastics, including some that may not have occurred to you, such as IP and licensing issues, bioethics, and national security. Note the mention of 3D printed guns, which have been in the news a fair amount during 2018.
  • 3-D printer emissions raise concerns and prompt controls. This March 26, 2018 article by Janet Pelley in Chemical & Engineering News focuses on potential negative health impacts of inhaling VOCs and plastic particles. “Although the government has set workplace standards for a few of the VOCs released by 3-D printers, these are for healthy working-age adults in industrial settings such as tire or plastic manufacturing plants: None of the compounds is regulated in homes or libraries where 3-D printers might be used by sensitive populations such as children. Furthermore, researchers don’t know the identity of most of the compounds emitted by printers. “Scientists know that particles and VOCs are bad for health, but they don’t have enough information to create a regulatory standard for 3-D printers,” says Marina E. Vance, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. What’s more, data from early studies of 3-D printer emissions are difficult to use in developing standards because of variability in the test conditions, says Rodney J. Weber, an aerosol chemist at Georgia Institute of Technology. Two years ago, UL, an independent safety certification company, established an advisory board and began funding research projects to answer basic questions about the amounts and types of compounds in 3-D printer emissions, what levels are safe, and how to minimize exposures, says Marilyn S. Black, a vice president at UL. The company is working to create a consistent testing and evaluation method so that researchers will be able to compare data across different labs. ‘By this fall we will put out an ANSI [American National Standards Institute] standard for measuring particles and VOCs for everyone to use,” she says. See the UL Additive Manufacturing pages“, specifically the “library” section for their currently available safety publications.
  • 3D Printing and the Environment: The Implications of Additive Manufacturing. This special issue of Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology from November 2017 is the least “layperson friendly” resource provided in this post, but includes a variety of research articles providing important insights into its environmental, energy, and health impacts.

Live Demo of New Mobile Phone Environmental Benefits Calculator 9/19/18

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, most commonly simply called EPEAT, is a product registry to help purchasers identify electronic devices with positive environmental attributes. Manufacturers and retailers can use the registry to highlight product offerings which meet criteria addressing materials selection, design for product longevity, reuse and recycling, energy conservation, end-of-life management and corporate performance. EPEAT was developed with a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is managed by the Green Electronics Council (GEC) .

The EPEAT registry has long included computers (including laptops and tablets) and displays, imaging equipment (e.g. printers, copiers, fax machines, scanners, multifunction devices, etc.), and televisions. Mobile phones were recently added, and servers are the latest product category addition.

The GEC is developing a new Environmental Benefits Calculator that measures the environmental and cost benefits of purchasing sustainable EPEAT-registered products. The new calculator will launch for the mobile phone category in September. The calculator will expand to include servers and the updated Computer and Display category by the end of the year.

Purchasers are invited to join GEC’s Patty Dillon, Acting Director of EPEAT Category Development, on September 19th for a live demonstration of the Mobile Phone Environmental Benefits Calculator. Learn how to use the calculator to quantify the sustainability benefits of purchasing EPEAT-registered IT products, as well as how to estimate savings resulting from extended use and recycling of those devices.

The free live demo will take place Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018 from 1:00 PM – 1:30 PM CDT. Register at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/3613264982148557571.

 

Battery Innovations and News–Late Summer 2018

As electronics become more ubiquitous each day, the integration of smaller electronic components into ever more products continues, and renewable energy becomes an increasingly popular strategy for addressing climate change, the ability to store and supply power efficiently and safely is all the more important. So it’s no surprise that batteries have been a hot topic in the news for the past month or so. Let’s take a moment to consider some of the highlights of recent battery-related news.

We may as well start with the well-written piece by Geoffrey A. Fowler, the Washington Post’s technology columnist, published today (9/12/18): “The problem with recycling our old tech gadgets: They explode.” This is a good article about how design choices to make electronics thinner and more portable make the recycling of electronics more difficult and dangerous.  Specifically because lithium-ion batteries are being incorporated into more products and smaller products, often without an easy–or any–way to remove those batteries. This isn’t just problematic for for extending the useful life of products. The trend makes the recycling of electronics increasingly risky while simultaneously making the economic feasibility of such efforts diminish. Recyclers need more time, special equipment, and training for proper handling, and they are at greater risk of damages caused by fires. As Fowler explains: “For all their benefits at making our devices slim, powerful and easy to recharge, lithium-ion batteries have some big costs. They contain Cobalt, often mined in inhumane circumstances in places like the Congo. And when crushed, punctured, ripped or dropped, lithium-ion batteries can produce what the industry euphemistically calls a “thermal event.” It happens because these batteries short circuit when the super-thin separator between their positive and negative parts gets breached. Remember Samsung’s exploding Note 7 smartphone? That was a lithium-ion thermal event.”

Fowler visits Cascade Asset Management, an electronics scrap processor in Madison, WI, to observe the process of removing a battery from an old iPad before the device can be sent through the shredder for recycling.  My take away from this article: products need to be designed not only with sleek aesthetics and portability in mind, but also the ability to easily and safely upgrade, repair, and maintain them during their useful life and then to easily and safely reclaim parts and component materials when they have reached their end of useful life. Fowler concludes “So as a gadget reviewer, let me say this clearly to the tech industry: Give up your thin obsession. We’ll happily take electronics with a little extra junk in the trunk if it means we can easily replace batteries to make them last longer – and feel more confident they won’t end up igniting a recycling inferno.” Do agree with his sentiment? Consider voicing that opinion to the manufacturers of your favorite devices, and if you’re an industrial design student, heed well the lessons you can learn from this article.

Close up view of a lithium-ion laptop battery
Photo by Kristoferb, CC BY-SA 3.0

As long as we’re on the subject of “thermal events,” consider this interesting research highlighted in this article provided by the American Chemical Society : “These lithium-ion batteries can’t catch fire because they harden on impact.” ‘Lithium-ion batteries commonly used in consumer electronics are notorious for bursting into flame when damaged or improperly packaged. These incidents occasionally have grave consequences, including burns, house fires and at least one plane crash. Inspired by the weird behavior of some liquids that solidify on impact, researchers have developed a practical and inexpensive way to help prevent these fires. They will present their results today at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). “In a lithium-ion battery, a thin piece of plastic separates the two electrodes,” Gabriel Veith, Ph.D., says. “If the battery is damaged and the plastic layer fails, the electrodes can come into contact and cause the battery’s liquid electrolyte to catch fire.” To make these batteries safer, some researchers instead use a nonflammable, solid electrolyte. But these solid-state batteries require significant retooling of the current production process, Veith says. As an alternative, his team mixes an additive into the conventional electrolyte to create an impact-resistant electrolyte. It solidifies when hit, preventing the electrodes from touching if the battery is damaged during a fall or crash. If the electrodes don’t touch each other, the battery doesn’t catch fire. Even better, incorporating the additive would require only minor adjustments to the conventional battery manufacturing process…In the future, Veith plans to enhance the system so the part of the battery that’s damaged in a crash would remain solid, while the rest of the battery would go on working. The team is initially aiming for applications such as drone batteries, but they would eventually like to enter the automotive market. They also plan to make a bigger version of the battery, which would be capable of stopping a bullet. That could benefit soldiers, who often carry 20 pounds of body armor and 20 pounds of batteries when they’re on a mission, Veith says. “The battery would function as their armor, and that would lighten the average soldier by about 20 pounds.”

Imagine the day when lithium-ion batteries might be an asset for safety instead of a liability!

white silica powder shown in a blue tray next to a white sheet of plastic
Adding powdered silica (in blue container) to the polymer layer (white sheet) that separates electrodes inside a test battery (gold bag) will prevent lithium-ion battery fires. Credit: Gabriel Veith

Writing for the HOBI International blog, Alicia Cotton recently wrote that “Innovation is making lithium-ion batteries increasingly harder to recycle.” The point of her post was that as demand for lithium-ion batteries increase, manufacturers will look to produce them with cheaper materials, adversely impacting the economic incentives for recycling these batteries. ‘According to the Royal Chemistry Society, the cost of cobalt, which is heavily used as a cathode material in all batteries, jumped from $32,500 to $81,000 in just over a year. In response, battery manufacturers have opted to redesign batteries to minimize cobalt. In May, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company had all but eliminated cobalt from batteries it uses in automobile and stationary batteries. However, doing so will help keep batteries cheap — as in too cheap to recycle. Without valuable contents recyclers have little incentive to capture used batteries, Kaun said.‘  This is an interesting example of trade-offs and how considerations for sustainability are rarely simple. The use of cobalt in batteries is problematic not just due to the economic cost of the material, but also due to human rights issues related to cobalt sourcing. However, this article points out that as higher value materials are phased out of design, there is a negative impact on the economics of recycling. More work is clearly needed to create recycling incentives for lithium-ion batteries moving forward, as well as developing batteries which depend less on cobalt, and improving the sustainability of the cobalt supply chain.

In another recent post for the HOBI International blog, Cotton writes that a “New Material will Triple Storage Capacity of Lithium-Ion Batteries.” Together in a joint effort, scientists from the University of Maryland (UMD), U.S. Army Research Lab and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) have been working hard to improve the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Turns out, the use of extra cobalt was the answer. The scientists believe they can triple the energy density of lithium-ion battery electrodes.” Well, that would make those batteries not only have higher storage capacity, but also create an incentive for recycling them–but then we’re looking at the issues surrounding cobalt sourcing again. What did I say about trade-offs and how sustainable solutions are rarely simple? Sigh.

And, while we’re on the subject of sustainable solutions coming in shades of grey, here’s an example of how context can be important. As someone who advocates for waste reduction, I often talk about the need for more durable, repairable, upgradable goods and a move away from disposability. I certainly like to encourage people to use rechargeable batteries instead of single-use ones where they can. But there are situations in which disposable goods might actually foster sustainability, and yes, this is even true for batteries.  Another recent update from the American Chemical Society discussed “A paper battery powered by bacteria.” Consider remote areas of the world where access to electricity is a luxury, or situation in which a natural disaster or other emergency has occurred leaving an area without access to power. Think about medical devices that would be needed to help victims of a disaster, or just be part of everyday medical support in remote areas. Paper is desirable for biosensors due to its flexibility, portability, high surface area, and inexpensive nature. “Choi and his colleagues at the State University of New York, Binghamton made a paper battery by printing thin layers of metals and other materials onto a paper surface. Then, they placed freeze-dried “exoelectrogens” on the paper. Exoelectrogens are a special type of bacteria that can transfer electrons outside of their cells. The electrons, which are generated when the bacteria make energy for themselves, pass through the cell membrane. They can then make contact with external electrodes and power the battery. To activate the battery, the researchers added water or saliva. Within a couple of minutes, the liquid revived the bacteria, which produced enough electrons to power a light-emitting diode and a calculator…The paper battery, which can be used once and then thrown away, currently has a shelf-life of about four months. Choi is working on conditions to improve the survival and performance of the freeze-dried bacteria, enabling a longer shelf life. In a related article by Jason Deign for Greentech Media, Choi noted that in these low-power, low-cost situations, the paper battery could be used and then biodegrade without special treatment. Further reporting on this innovation is available in the IEEE Spectrum.

Black paper batteries held in a gloved hand.
Researchers harnessed bacteria to power these paper batteries. Credit: Seokheun Choi.

Now that you’ve read about all these innovations and the need for further innovations, you may be thinking, “Can someone please just tell what a lithium-ion battery is, the basics of how they work, and why we use them if there are so many problematic issues?!?!” Don’t worry–a recent post by Arthur Shi on the iFixit blog provides a nice overview with some links to more in-depth explanations if you’re interested.

The Illini Gadget Garage has Diverted 740.88 lbs from Waste Stream

Launched with seed funding from the UI Student Sustainability Commitee (SSC) and supported by donations from corporations, organizations and individuals, the Illini Gadget Garage is a collaborative repair center for electronic devices and small appliances, that works to:

  • extend the useful life of products, and thus conserve the natural and human resources invested in their manufacture;
  • provide experiential learning related to STEM and sustainability for students and community members; and
  • empower people to see repair as a viable option for addressing minor damage and performance issues.

“Collaborative repair” means that Illini Gadget Garage staff and volunteers will guide you through the process of troubleshooting and repairing your devices yourself rather than doing it for you. It’s not “do it for you” but it’s also not entirely “do it yourself”–it’s more of a “do it together” approach meant to make learning about and working on electronics less intimidating. Since its launch the Illini Gadget Garage project has been coordinated by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) as part of its sustainable electronics and zero waste efforts.

The Illini Gadget Garage tracks the weight of devices brought in for assistance, as well as the weight of “special materials” (e.g. single use and rechargeable batteries plus CDs and their cases) it collects and ships for recycling.  These statistics were recently updated to include figures through July 2018. See the summary of these figures at https://drive.google.com/file/d/11XV_2jO3KNf7437oQ3IlXoc4HtIjGNZ_/view.

As of July 2018, the project’s total for pounds of materials diverted from the waste stream through repair assistance or collection for recycling is 740.88 lbs!

How much is that, really? According to the web site “The Measure of Things” presented by Bluebulb Projects, that’s three-fourths as heavy as a grand piano, or about two-thirds as heavy as a polar or grizzly bear. See https://www.bluebulbprojects.com/MeasureOfThings/results.php?amt=740.88&comp=weight&unit=lbs&searchTerm=740.88+lbs.

Keep up the good work, University of Illinois students, staff, and faculty, and the residents of the broader Champaign-Urbana community!

To set up an appointment with the Illini Gadget Garage, email illinigadgetgarage@gmail.com. You can also check their web site or Facebook page for upcoming “pop-up” repair clinic events throughout the community.

 

Illini Gadget Garage Clean Those Gizmos Pop-Up This Saturday

Join the Illini Gadget Garage at the Champaign Public Library (Foundation meeting room, 2nd floor) this Saturday, June 9th from 1:30-3:30 PM to learn how to bring new life into old electronics just with a bit of cleaning and TLC. A short presentation will demonstrate some of the simple ways that cleaning your devices can keep them functioning well and in use longer. After the presentation, there will be a workshop session where you can try out some of your newly learned cleaning processes on devices that you bring in. The Illini Gadget Garage staff will provide some useful household cleaning products to help scrub up those dingy devices.

See the Facebook event at https://www.facebook.com/events/2279158958780787/.

The Illini Gadget Garage is an educational effort of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative, coordinated by the Technical Assistance Program at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.

Researchers Propose Method to Choose More Sustainable Nanomaterials

From the May 1, 2018 edition of Science Daily:  “Engineered nanomaterials hold great promise for medicine, electronics, water treatment, and other fields. But when the materials are designed without critical information about environmental impacts at the start of the process, their long-term effects could undermine those advances. A team of researchers hopes to change that.

In a study published in Nature Nanotechnology, Yale researchers outline a strategy to give materials designers the tools they need to make the necessary assessments efficiently and at the beginning of the design process. Engineers traditionally focus on the function and cost of their products. Without the information to consider long-term environmental impacts, though, it is difficult to predict adverse effects. That lack of information means that unintended consequences often go unnoticed until long after the product has been commercialized. This can lead to hastily replacing the material with another that proves to have equally bad, or even worse, effects. Having materials property information at the start of the design process could change that pattern. “As a researcher, if I have limited resources for research and development, I don’t want to spend it on something that’s not going to be viable due to its effects on human health,” said Julie Zimmerman, professor of chemical & environmental engineering and co-senior author of the study. “I want to know now, before I develop that product.” To that end, the researchers have developed a database that serves as a screening tool for environmentally sustainable material selection. It’s a chart that lists nanomaterials and assesses each for properties such as size, shape, and such performance characteristics as toxicity and antimicrobial activity. Mark Falinski, a PhD student and lead author of the study, said this information would allow researchers to weigh the different effects of the material before actually developing it.”

The database created by the research team also allows other researchers to enter information to improve the material selection framework. It includes engineered nanomaterials and conventional alternatives with human health and environmental metrics for all materials.

The research team includes scientists affiliated with Yale University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, City University of Hong Kong, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Image of three different illustrations of nanoscale materials: white crystals, pyramidal dark crystals joined together, and a tubular mesh-like formation of molecules
Researchers propose a new method for nanomaterial selection that incorporates environmental and functional performance, as well as cost. Credit: Steve Geringer.

Read the full story in Science Daily at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180501161754.htm.

Read the referenced article in Nature Nanotechnology at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41565-018-0120-4.  [Mark M. Falinski, Desiree L. Plata, Shauhrat S. Chopra, Thomas L. Theis, Leanne M. Gilbertson, Julie B. Zimmerman. A framework for sustainable nanomaterial selection and design based on performance, hazard, and economic considerationsNature Nanotechnology, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41565-018-0120-4]

To learn more about the potential environmental and health impacts of nanotechnology, see the following:

Researchers Use Ultrasound to Recover Gold from Electronic Scrap

The last few months have been ripe with reports on new research related to material recovery from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-scrap” or “e-waste”), as highlighted in a previous post. I’ve learned of yet another exciting innovation in this field, thanks to a feature written by Jared Paben in the latest edition (4/19/18) of E-Scrap News.

As Paben reports, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a method to use ultrasonic waves, coupled with surfactants, to cheaply and efficiently recover gold from scrap electronics. Their experiments involved application of two different surfactants to the surface of a cell phone SIM card, which was then submerged in water. Ultrasonic waves were applied, which imploded micro-bubbles on the SIM card’s surface. Upon collapse of these micro-bubbles, micro-jets ejected gold nanoparticles from the card’s surface, and the nanoparticles were captured and stabilized by the surfactants.

According to the research group’s paper, published in the journal Small on 3/24/18), this mechanical method may not only present an effective way of reclaiming gold and other metals from electronic scrap, but could potentially be used to manufacture gold nanoparticles from native gold metal directly upon recovery from mining, which they say “may represent the greenest possible approach to nanoparticle synthesis.” (Citation: J. Watt, M. J. Austin, C. K. Simocko, D. V. Pete, J. Chavez, L. M. Ammerman, D. L. Huber, Small 2018, 1703615. https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201703615)

You can read more about this research in a 4/3/18 article from New Scientist.

To learn about cavitation and cavitation bubbles, the phenomena which allow this mechanical process to work, see https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/cavitationbubbles.jsp and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavitation.

For more information on gold in electronics, see How Much Gold is in Smartphones and Computers? and Uses of Gold in Industry, Medicine, Computers, Electronics, Jewelry.

To learn about the properties and applications of gold nanoparticles, see https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/technical-documents/articles/materials-science/nanomaterials/gold-nanoparticles.html.

Further Developments in E-Waste Recycling

In a previous post, we discussed how researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed an energy-efficient, non-toxic, nondestructive chemical process to recover polymers from the complex plastic blends found in items like cellphone cases.

But that’s not the only exciting news this Earth Month related to innovations in reclaiming materials from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-waste”). In a GreenBiz article dated 4/18/18, Heather Clancy highlights an electrochemical process developed by Canadian venture EnviroLeach Technologies, which is similar to the conventional method of leaching gold and other metals out of ores, concentrates and tailings. The difference is that “instead of using cyanide, the patent-pending formula uses five non-toxic, FDA-approved ingredients that are combined with water at ambient temperatures.’The process does not require pressure, elevated temperatures, complex process circuits, intensive gas monitoring or costly detoxification systems,’ explained EnviroLeach on its website.” Read the full story on the GreenBiz web site. You can also check out the EnviroLeach web site for further information. This development is particularly encouraging considering a recent article from Environmental Leader reporting that n a study by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing and Macquarie University in Australia, which suggests extracting metals from e-waste costs 13 times less than mining ore. Perhaps the new process will make the economic benefit even more striking, while minimizing environmental impacts.

Elsewhere in Canada, researchers at the University of British Columbia “have perfected a process to efficiently separate fibreglass and resin – two of the most commonly discarded parts of a cellphone – bringing them closer to their goal of a zero-waste cellphone.” As UBC News reports, “Most e-waste recycling firms focus on recovering useful metals like gold, silver, copper and palladium, which can be used to manufacture other products. But nonmetal parts like fibreglass and resins, which make up the bulk of cellphones’ printed circuit boards, are generally discarded because they’re less valuable and more difficult to process. They’re either fed to incinerators or become landfill, where they can leach hazardous chemicals into groundwater, soil and air.” But UBC mining engineering professor Maria Holuszko, along with PhD student Amit Kumar, has developed a process using gravity separation “and other simple phycial techniques to process cellphone fibreglass and resins in an environmentally neutral fashion.” The next step in pursuing this innovation is developing a large-scale commercial model of the process with their industrial partner and recycling company Ronin8. Read the full UBC article on the UBC News web site.

Read more at https://ifixit.org/recycling on why electronics recycling, though of course important, should not be considered the answer to the problem of ever-growing amounts of e-waste, due to the difficulty in reclaiming materials (eased slowly by new innovations like the ones described above) and energy use. While these developments in electronic scrap recycling are heartening, it’s important to remember to keep your electronics in service as long as possible through repair and upgrades, and when you no longer want or need a functioning device, sell or donate it so someone else can use it. Recycling should only come at the ultimate end of a device’s useful life.

ISTC Researchers Tap Problematic E-waste Surplus to Recover High-quality Polymers

Two smiling men stand in a laboratory
Illinois Sustainability Technology Center researchers B.K. Sharma, left, and Sriraam Chandrasekaran have developed the first energy-efficient and environmentally benign e-waste recycling process.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Mixed-plastic electronics waste could be a valuable source of reusable polymers, a new study led by Illinois Sustainability Technology Center (ISTC) scientists suggests. The team’s findings, published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, are the first to demonstrate a nontoxic, nondestructive and energy-efficient chemical solvent process to recover polymers from the complex plastic blends found in items like like cellphone cases.

HOBI International, Inc. and the ISTC Hazardous Waste Research Fund supported this research. The ISTC is part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.

Read more about this cutting edge project on the University of Illinois News Bureau web site.

See also the ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: March 14, 2018: An eco-friendly alternative to recycling e-waste.

Learn more about the researchers on their ISTC staff pages: