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World's first e-waste microfactory launched

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The University of NSW in Sydney has launched the world’s first microfactory aimed at reducing the amount of harmful electronic waste ending up in landfill.

The new facility can transform the components from electronic waste (e-waste) items such as discarded smart phones and laptops into valuable materials for re-use.

The ground-breaking technology was developed following extensive scientific research at UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre).

In launching the micro-factory at the SMaRT Centre laboratories, NSW Minister for the

Environment Gabrielle Upton said the new technology was a NSW home-grown solution to the waste challenges facing communities all over the world.

"It is exciting to see innovations such as this prototype microfactory and the potential they have to reduce waste and provide a boost to both the waste management and manufacturing industries in NSW," Ms Upton said.

SMaRT Centre Director, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, said the e-waste microfactory was the first of a series of microfactories under development and in testing at UNSW that can also turn many types of consumer waste streams such as glass, plastic and timber into commercial materials and products.

Cost-effective solution

For instance, from e-waste, computer circuit boards can be transformed into valuable metal alloys such as copper and tin while glass and plastic from e-devices can be converted into micromaterials used in industrial grade ceramics and plastic filaments for 3D printing. 

"Our e-waste microfactory and another under development for other consumer waste types offer a cost-effective solution to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our age, while delivering new job opportunities to our cities but importantly to our rural and regional areas, too," Professor Sahajwalla said.

"Using our green manufacturing technologies, these microfactories can transform waste where it is stockpiled and created, enabling local businesses and communities to not only tackle local waste problems but to develop a commercial opportunity from the valuable materials that are created."

Solution to burning and burying waste

Professor Sahajwalla said microfactories presented a solution to burning and burying waste items that contain materials which can be transformed into value-added substances and products to meet existing and new industry and consumer demands.

This was a truly sustainable solution to our growing waste problem, she said, while offering economic benefits available to local communities.

"We have proven you can transform just about anything at the micro-level and transform waste streams into value-added products. 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," she said. 

"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.”

How it works

UNSW has developed the technology with support from the Australian Research Council and is now in partnership with a number of businesses and organisations including e-waste recycler TES, mining manufacturer Moly-Cop, and Dresden which makes spectacles.

How it works: UNSW’s modular micro factories can operate on a site as small as 50sqm and can be located wherever waste may be stockpiled. A microfactory is one or a series of small machines and devices that uses patented technology to perform one or more functions in the reforming of waste products into new and usable resources.

The e-waste microfactory that reforms discarded computers, mobile phones and printers, has a number of small modules for this process and fits into a small site. The discarded devices are first placed into a module to break them down. The next module may involve a special robot for the identification of useful parts.

Another module then involves using a small furnace which transforms these parts into valuable materials by using a precisely controlled temperature process developed via extensive research. 

Industry encouraged to embrace new technology

These transformed materials include metal alloys and a range of micromaterials. The micromaterials can be used in industrial-grade ceramics while the specific quality plastics from computers, printers and other discarded sources can be put through another module that produces filaments suitable for 3D-printing applications, while the metal alloys can be used as metal components for new or existing manufacturing processes.

While the SMaRT Centre is expanding its partnerships with industry, investors and local councils, the challenge is to commercialise and create incentives for industry to take up this technology.UNSW e-waste factory

End users must also be encouraged to change their behaviour – as societies and communities around the world seek to be more sustainable.

Home grown e-waste solution: SMaRT Centre Director Professor Veena Sahajwalla with NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton

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