The University of Leicester has developed a pioneering method of recycling electronic waste which is more eco-friendly than most current methods. The University website reports that the new technology which is being developed by engineers and scientists has the potential to be zero-carbon, and avoid the use of toxic chemicals.
The growing volume of e-waste, such as mobile phones, laptops, and tablets, presents a major environmental challenge. It is estimated that 99% of the UK’s e-waste is currently shipped abroad, where it is smelted down at very high temperatures. This is a difficult and energy intensive process, and creates a high volume of greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the e-waste is not properly disposed of at all, leading to toxic chemical leaks, and wasted precious metals, including gold, palladium, silver, and copper. It is estimated that globally, 53.6m tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2019, of which only 17.4% was recycled.
The volume of e-waste increases each year, as the demand for the latest electronic devices continues to grow rapidly, and many devices become obsolete within a few years of manufacture, thanks to the continuous development of new technology.
There are current methods of recycling the circuit boards, which contain precious metals, involving chemicals, but this also creates toxic waste and pollution.
The new clean chemical methods developed at Leicester involves using Deep Eutectic Solvents (DES) which are capable of dissolving the target metals without the need for high temperature smelting, or the use of toxic chemicals.
UK based company Decycle are collaborating with the University to develop the technology at scale. It has already received recognition and awards by the prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry Emerging technologies Competition, and also a grant of £1.2m. Dr Rob Harris is Chief Technology Officer at Decycle, and also works as a researcher at the University.
Dr Harris said: “The technology we have developed to tackle the e-waste challenge is very exciting and potentially a real game changer. I feel incredibly honoured and excited to have expert validation in the technology and what we are doing at Descycle.”
He added: “By being awarded such a prestigious grant as the Future Leaders Fellowship to continue the route to commercialisation in e-waste, and to also have been shortlisted to make the final of the RSC’s Emerging Technologies competition, it feels very much like we are gaining a lot of the right interest to be able to make a huge success of this.”
Professor Sarah Davies, Head of the College of Science and Engineering, commented “Revolutionary chemistry research over the last 20 years at Leicester underpins these new processing technologies that are enabling us to tackle major issues of global significance.”
DES chemistries are also being trialled by mining companies, who are searching for cleaner and less damaging ways of extract precious metals from the earth. It is hoped that DES methods will be widely adopted in the future, both for the purposes of recycling e-waste and for mining, and for other commercial purposes.
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