The list of factors that affect sustainable electronics manufacturing interests is significant: from environmental concerns to corporate interests, geography and politics restrictions, and natural resource limitations, we encounter many conflicting challenges to source materials for electronic devices.
Therefore, the introduction of a new initiative for keeping landfills as neat as possible, such as the vertically-integrated recycling program for e-scrap developed by the University of Kentucky (UKY) and Lexmark International, suggests there are encouraging solutions to at least some of the problems mentioned above. (One of which is that disused UKY students’ smartphones can be taken out of old drawers and recycled locally.)
A man carrying a see-through recycling container full of electronic waste
Image credit: Bigstock
Scrapped Electronics: Leftovers with a High Price Tag
While the race for space mining marks the beginning of a lucrative industry for commercial purposes, in its current state, it simply cannot supply all of the precious metals and rare earth elements found in electronics. To illustrate, the omnipresent smartphone has, among many other materials, a solid amount of gold and copper in it (as well as a multitude of rare earth elements, such as yttrium, lanthanum, terbium, neodymium, gadolinium, and praseodymium).
For now, the traditional approaches to extracting those valuables from smartphones and other consumer devices is a tricky and inefficient process, as is the task of digging and purifying them from the Earth’s crust. On top of this, general concerns over sustainability add yet another problem for production companies.
To avoid such pitfalls, instead of relying on the exportation of devices and importing electronic scrap, the workload in the UKY-Lexmark research project is fully focused in Lexington, Kentucky. Rather than dispersing ‘bits and pieces’ of the recycling process across the globe, the sustainability line is shortened to a single U.S. faculty.
The Interdependency of Metallurgy and Electronics
Just as mining engineers depend on sustainable digging to optimise processes and produce intelligent mining equipment with mechatronics, so too do electronics and electrical engineers need the help of the mining industry to design ‘green’ devices. Plus, the boom in nano-science materials is also important because of the reliance that the electronics industry has on compact, highly efficient electronic components (again, those made from innovative combinations of rare elements and other materials).
The battle between who makes new products and who takes care of the e-waste has hit the headlines more than once, with the primary responsibility now being shifted towards manufacturers. Companies that produce electronic components need to consider early-stage development of recyclable devices and provide better end-of-life support to engineers.
Zebulon Hart from the University of Kentucky controls the university’s electronic waste recycling system as it processes the broken components of disused consumer devices.
Image credit: Dave Melanson, the University of Kentucky
The University of Kentucky and Lexmark’s Recycling Project
Acting on the above, Jack Groppo, a mining professor and a researcher at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research and his faculty colleague Assistant Professor Josh Werner have, since 2020, collaborated on a joint project with Lexmark aimed at achieving a local separation and processing system from recycled smartphones, tablets, cables, and power supplies, which have been submitted by students and staff. The project is a result of the researchers’ awarded 2020 University of Kentucky Sustainability Challenge Grant.
Apart from sustainability points gained from metal recovery and purification, the system also provides a training opportunity for students. Students are involved in the metallurgical processing in the educational pilot plant, including methods such as solvent extraction and electrowinning.
Can We Benefit from a Vertical Electronics Recycling System?
Sustainability is not simply a question of ethics. The European Union, for instance, sets an example to others by having some particularly strict e-waste laws. Canada, meanwhile, works on its own e-waste commitments through its adherence to the EPRA (Electronic Products Recycling Association) programs. And the United States also implements policies of due diligence and liability in dealing with electronic waste and through its support of electronics stewardship.
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly harmed electronics manufacturing industries that have for so long relied on e-scrap electronic components—case in point, the supply of printed circuit boards (especially in the U.S.). In addition, we should not take lightly the increasing problem of counterfeit electronics made from scrap metals. Therefore, being able to source metals locally and get them ready to be recycled and immediately reworked into new circuit boards can help both the cutting of expenses and the assurance of product authenticity.
It is beyond question that it takes many to collaborate on the responsible handling of scrapped metals to be able to ‘round the circle’ of ‘the circular economy’. It is refreshing, then, that North America’s most popular e-scrap conference has been scheduled for both 2022 and 2023.
Put simply, until we see an increase in new projects with a broader scope, any local scrapping initiative is well worth the effort. And the University of Kentucky and Lexmark International’s R&D partnership certainly fits the bill.