In the March 29, 2019 edition of Resource Recycling, Jared Paben reported that researchers at the Vellore Institute of Technology in India found they could use granules of high-impact polystyrene from scrap electronics as a replacement for sand in self-compacting concrete. They also studied using fly ash from a power plant as a replacement for cement. They found HIPS and fly ash could be used at levels of up to 30 percent without significantly reducing strength, according to their paper, which was published in February in the journal Buildings. Self-compacting lightweight concrete is generally used on long-span bridges, the paper noted.
In late March 2019, the European Recycling Platform (ERP) achieved a significant milestone, having recycled over 1 million tonnes (i.e. metric tons) of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) in the UK. According to ERP UK, this is the equivalent of preventing the release of 1,400 tonnes of ozone depleting substances. This also represents a savings of 4 billion kWh of primary energy.
You can also visit the web site of the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA), which has been running Nova Scotia’s electronics recycling program for the past 10 years. EPRA will expand its program to recycle the new products. https://epra.ca/
“Around 7% of the world’s gold is inside e-scrap, of which less than one-third is currently salvaged, according to project leader Professor Jason Love. One tonne of gold ore contains around up to 5 grams of pure gold. However, a tonne of discarded mobile phones easily holds 300 grams of the valuable metal, Love says. The chemical reagent pioneered by in Edinburgh effectively recovers ‘a very high purity of gold’ from various types of discarded electronics. First, the researchers place the printed circuit boards in a mild acid to dissolve metallic parts. An oily liquid containing the new reagent is then added, which allows gold to be extracted selectively from the complex mixture of metals found inside electronics. Professor Love explains that, normally, one molecule of reagent binds directly to a metal molecule. The innovative compound uses a different type of chemistry and can bind to clusters of gold molecules instead of just one. ‘This means you can use a lot less of it to recover the same amount of gold,’ he says.”
The researchers hope to find ways to recover other metals, including valuable (e.g. palladium, platinum, and neodymium), common (e.g. copper and tin), and toxic (e.g. lead and cadmium) metals. Similarly, they are interested in exploring chemical means to more effectively recover plastics from electronic scrap.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The next free electronics recycling collection event for participating communities in Champaign County, IL is scheduled for October 14, 2017. The collection will take place from 8 AM to noon at Parkland College (2400 W. Bradley Ave., Champaign). Use the Duncan Road entrance and follow the signs.
There is a 10 item limit for participating residents, and a 2 TV limit. All sizes, types, and models of televisions are accepted. This is of particular significance, because although there are multiple businesses that do accept various types of electronics for recycling year-round, there is currently no place in Champaign County to recycle older, bulkier cathode ray tube (CRT) tvs. (See the Champaign County Electronics Recycling Guide for information on businesses that accept electronics for recycling, including items accepted and contact information).
Participating communities include: Bondville, Broadlands, Champaign, Gifford, Homer, Ivesdale, Ludlow,
Mahomet, Ogden, Rantoul, Royal, Sadorus, Savoy, St. Joseph, Thomasboro, Urbana, and Unincorporated County. Due to the popularity of these collection events, residents must register at www.ecycle.simplybook.me. Online registration opens on Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 8 AM.
On Tuesday, August 22, the Illini Gadget Garage will be hosting a screening of the documentary Death by Design at the Champaign Public Library. Doors will open at 6:30 PM and the film will begin at 7:00. The film duration is 73 minutes.
The Illini Gadget Garage is a repair center that helps consumers with “do-it-together” troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues of electronics and small appliances. The project promotes repair as a means to keep products in service and out of the waste stream. The Illini Gadget Garage is coordinated by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.
Death by Design explores the environmental and human costs of electronics, particularly considering their impacts in the design and manufacture stages, bearing in mind that many electronic devices are not built to be durable products that we use for many years. Cell phones, for example, are items that consumers change frequently, sometimes using for less than 2 years before replacing with a new model. When we analyze the effort put into, and potential negative impacts of, obtaining materials for devices through efforts like mining, the exposure to potentially harmful substances endured by laborers in manufacturing plants, and the environmental degradation and human health risks associated with informal electronics recycling practices in various parts of the word, the idea that we might see these pieces of technology as “disposable” in any way becomes particularly poignant. For more information on the film, including reviews, see http://deathbydesignfilm.com/about/ and http://bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/dbd.html. You can also check out the trailer at the end of this post.