An Indian-origin scientist in Australia has launched the world’s first microfactory that can transform the components from electronic waste items such as smartphones and laptops into valuable materials for re-use. According to Veena Sahajwalla, a professor at the University of New South Wales, the e-waste microfactory has the potential to reduce the rapidly growing problem of vast amounts of electronic waste causing environmental harm and going into landfill.
It can also turn many types of consumer waste such as glass, plastic and timber into commercial materials and products, she said. 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,” said Sahajwalla, who earned her BTech degree in metallurgical engineering from IIT Kanpur in 1986. “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,” she said.
Sahajwalla said microfactories present 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. The modular microfactories can operate on a site as small as 50 square metres 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, said Sahajwalla. 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, she said. 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.
These transformed materials include metal alloys and a range of micromaterials, Sahajwalla said. These 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. The metal alloys can be used as metal components for new or existing manufacturing processes, she said.