World first e-waste recycling microfactory launches at UNSW

A world first microfactory capable of transforming components from e-waste which may reduce the amount sent to landfill has been launched at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The microfactory uses technology developed after extensive research at UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre) and is able to reduce the issue of e-waste from discarded phones and laptops causing environmental harm when sent to landfill.

NSW Minister for the Environment Gabrielle Upton said it was exciting to see new technological innovations that could transform waste management and recycling.

“I am very pleased to launch the UNSW e-waste microfactory today, a NSW home-grown solution to the waste challenges facing communities all over the world,” Ms Upton said.

“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.

The micro factory is able to operate on a site as small as 50 square metres and can be located at anywhere waste is stockpiled. It functions as a series of machines and devices that use technology to perform one or more functions in the reforming of waste products.

The UNSW microfactory is able to reform computers, mobile phones and printers, and has a number of modules for the process. The devices are first broken down, then a robot identifies useful parts, which sends them to a small furnace which transforms them into valuable resources using precise temperatures and processes developed by extensive research.

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.

An example of this is turning computer circuit boards into valuable metal allows such as copper and tine. Glass from devices can also be converted into micrometrical 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,” Dr 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.”

Dr 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 which also offers economic benefits available to local communities, she said.

“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.”

The technology was developed with support from the Australian Research Council and is now in partnership with a number of businesses including e-waste recycler TES, mining manufacturer Moly-cop and spectacle company Dresden.

The SMaRT Centre is expanding its partnerships with industry, investors and local councils. The centre aims to commercialise and create incentives for the industry to use this technology and to encourage sustainable behaviours.