A micro solution to our waste

The University of New South Wales Sydney’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology has developed a new way to disrupt the traditional manufacturing sector with in-house recycling.

Imagine a world where manufacturers and materials recovery facilities worked in tandem to develop new products. Likewise, picture a business environment where waste generators recycle their own materials, including difficult-to-process materials such as e-waste.

The idea is being envisioned through new technology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney’s Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) centre. Professor Veena Sahajwalla, SMaRT Director, and her colleagues are trialling eco-friendly microfactories, which comprise one or a series of small machines and devices that use patented technology to convert waste into new and reusable resources.

The term microfactory refers to a small dimension factory able to produce small dimension materials and was first proposed by the Mechanical Engineer Laboratory of Japan in 1990.

“We are essentially creating a new technology for small-scale factories, working on predominately using waste as a feedstock and generating value-added materials for products,” Veena explains.

The intellectual property-protected technology has the ability to transform materials using regulated temperatures, eliminating the need for magnetic separation technology and differentiating it from other products on the market. SMaRT is aiming to ensure the materials compare to virgin materials.

The long-term goal of the project is to enable local communities to produce many of the products, materials and resources they need within their areas, using resources derived from waste. This unique approach aims to disrupt today’s centralised, vertically integrated industrial model and its global mass markets, with agile technologies driving the decentralisation of manufacturing. Veena says traditional manufacturing frequently occurs in large and immobile factories near raw material supplies or remote areas, but microfactories can be situated on a site as small as 50 square metres and located wherever waste is stockpiled. The first two microfactories will be unveiled at UNSW in 2018, with a focus on e-waste and green materials. Growing up in Mumbai, Veena dreamt of a scenario in which manufacturers and recyclers work together.

“If you’re looking at the ability to produce metal and metal alloys from, say, computer motherboards, it’s not just about physically separating out the plastic from the metals, but it is really about the transformation of these into reusable materials again,” Veena says.

“You want to be able to create metal alloys – so you can think of it as a regeneration of alloys. If you were focusing on metallics, for example, to create metal alloys, the plastic itself from the leftover non-metallic process could potentially also be converted into a value-added material containing carbon.”

Through microfactories, e-waste can be converted into valuable metal alloys, plastic 3D printer filament and other advanced materials, including silicon carbide nanoparticles with multiple uses. Green materials such as benchtops, panelling and flooring can be manufactured from mixed glass and plastics and other wastes that would ordinarily go to landfill. One microfactory takes computers, mobile phones and printers and places the discarded devices into a module to break them down. This may follow with a special robot to extract useful parts, while another module uses a furnace to separate the parts and allow them to be reused.

Carbon particles can be created using e-waste, including refractories used in high temperature manufacturing within furnaces that need carbon and oxides to withstand high temperatures.

“You can start to open up a whole realm of possibilities. Where you are using carbon for a variety of applications, it depends on the quality of the materials. Chemically, it might be a carbon product, but the properties control the end game which then controls its price in the market,” Veena says.

SMaRT continues to collaborate with its industry partners such as TES-AMM, a local recycler of e-waste, which has taken on licencing rights to implement a microfactory. TES-AMM is focusing on plastic and creating a variety of high performing plastics, which can be used in applications such as 3D printing.

“For a company like TES-AMM to create value-added materials like plastic filaments from waste plastics which are then suitable for 3D printing makes a lot of sense, because they’re sitting on a stockpile of waste plastics,” Veena says.

“You eventually start to create an ecosystem of microfactories that almost enable each other to co-exist.”

Microfactories may also provide a viable solution to oversupplies of materials such as glass, which has faced issues over the past few years over fluctuating commodity prices. Companies can convert glass into products for the built environment using a microfactory at precisely controlled temperatures and potentially process residual waste.

“We are creating innovative glass products for another company who loves the idea of a microfactory because it doesn’t mean that you need to have a whole history and a track record of working with waste. You can operate a microfactory even if you are not sitting on a pile of glass,” Veena says.

“Of course, you need to access raw materials, but there is no shortage of waste glass in Australia.”

SMaRT is now looking at further commercialising its research into plastic and glass. Metallics are another focus of SMaRT’s research, however it is still looking into how its solution could be commercialised.

“We do have technological solutions to generate metal alloys, but even though our industry partner is ready to take on the technology, we want to be able to produce alloys that are quite special,” Veena says.

“I think the metal alloys are going to be our biggest challenge that has yet to come, even though we’re staring down micro furnaces that have produced these alloys for us.”

In the long term, Veena believes microfactories could support, rather than challenge, materials recovery facilities.

“They have already gone through the logistics of picking it up and collecting it and probably have a site somewhere where this material is sitting, so it’s a logical extension of value-adding to their business.

“If they took even one of the microfactories on, say in glass, they wouldn’t have to worry about disposal costs.

“Essentially generating a high-value product in their own site means it leaves the site as their own product, rather than a waste they have to pay levies on,” she says.

Veena adds that microfactories will bring a new level of precision to the process.

“We can be agile in how we operate and control. Whereas if you had a large mega factory and a big smelter doing things on a larger scale, you do to some extent have to live with the larger avenues. With a microfactory you can nicely tailor and customise depending on what your inputs are.”

SMaRT’s vision for the technology in the long term is to ensure it helps no waste go to landfill, providing customised solutions for manufacturers and waste managers alike to deal with materials themselves, as well as cross-collaboration between businesses managing their waste.

“If you’re a manufacturer that wants to try different product designs then having access to filaments is one way to do it,” Veena says.

“You’re producing a product for a customer, so at the end of the day it’s not just about recycling, but to me it’s about advanced manufacturing. If you’re generating products through advanced manufacturing then there’s got to be an end user who is happy with what you’re making.”

Veena says the next few years will be key to SMaRT’s success and the next steps are for commercialisation on a wider scale. The process will see the university licence the technology for the waste and manufacturing industry, which would on sell it onto any relevant third parties.

Further support from federal, state and territory governments in encouraging manufacturers to look at recycled content as part of their products could support the rollout of microfactories, she adds.

“That commercial push is going to be important for us along with performance. It’s not good enough for us to say we’ve made it in the lab. We need it to be technically sound and commercially viable for our industry partners.”

Veena says the key to driving outcomes is understanding the process conditions required to capture the materials so it doesn’t interfere with the product or process.

“When I was travelling with Michael Sharp, Director of Manufacturing Growth Centre NSW, to a factory in Albury-Wodonga (we saw) they had produced a product where they had waste plastic left over,” she says.

“What was great to see was these guys were captivated about the possibility of manufacturing their own smaller components from the plastics they normally have to throw away.”

“This is more practical than getting a third party to manufacture it for them and then waiting for weeks before it arrives, and then worse yet, getting it imported from somewhere.”