The unstoppable march of next generation technology unfortunately means that today's must-haves are destined for tomorrow's electronic waste mountains. It's a growing problem, and one which Australia's University of South Wales Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology has an answer to. The SMaRT project has launched the world's first microfactory designed to transform e-waste into materials that can be re-used.
According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report, over 44 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was generated during 2016, which could rise to 52.2 metric tonnes by 2021. The SMaRT project at UNSW aims to turn e-waste into a valuable resource and prevent old smartphones, laptops, computers, printers and so on from ending up in landfill or in an incinerator.
The e-waste microfactory can be built at a site where e-waste is stockpiled and can operate in a space as small as 50 square meters (540 sq ft). The modular nature of the design also allows for site-specific flexibility.
It's made up of a series of small modules that are designed to break down the discarded electronic devices fed through the system, identify potentially useful components and fire up a temperature-controlled furnace to extract metals like copper and tin or transform them into metal alloys that can be re-used. A separate module could take the plastics from computer and printer housing and produce filaments for 3D printing or materials for use in industrial-grade ceramics.
"We have proven you can transform just about anything at the micro-level and transform waste streams into value-added products," said the project's Professor Veena Sahajwalla. "For example, instead of looking at plastics as just a nuisance, we've shown scientifically that you can generate materials from that waste stream to create smart filaments for 3D printing. These microfactories can transform the manufacturing landscape, especially in remote locations where typically the logistics of having waste transported or processed are prohibitively expensive. This is especially beneficial for the island markets and the remote and regional regions of the country."
The SMaRT e-waste microfactory was officially launched on April 4, and is reported to be the first in a series, with other modules being developed to tackle consumer waste. The video below has more on the SMaRT microfactory project.
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