New way to recycle e-waste receives national award and funding

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Researchers at the University of Leicester have received funding and national recognition for their development of a clean, carbon-free e-waste recycling process.

Having recently partnered with UK company Decycle to commercialize the process, the project was shortlisted for the Environment Prize in the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Emerging Technologies competition.

The appointment follows confirmation that they would also receive £1.2million in grants from UKRI’s flagship program to continue the development of technology to scale up recycling and recovery of e-waste and other metals.

Deep Eutectic Solvents (DES), first developed by Leicester scientists in the early 2000s, are a class of non-toxic solvents with wide applicability in a wide range of materials processing, especially metals. Solvents dissolve target metals in solution without the need for toxic chemicals or high temperatures. Unlike other chemical-based e-waste management processes, the solution is not consumed, meaning it is recyclable and can be reused.

Researchers first discovered their usefulness with e-waste when a group of Leicester geologists approached the inventors of DES to use the technology to recover gold from fossils that had been coated for improved microscopic viewing. without damaging the characteristics of the sample.

They were able to develop a DES process that would dissolve the gold while leaving the fossil intact. What followed was testing DES chemistry on a variety of gold concentrates as an alternative to cyanide and mercury leaching. In addition to recycling e-waste, the technology is now being tested by mining companies to extract metals much cleaner, without putting miners at risk from other highly polluting methods.

This approach differs from other chemistry-based technologies in development, as the vast majority use highly hazardous acids and oxidants that are consumed and need to be replaced regularly. This creates high CO2 emissions, both due to the transport of these chemicals and their necessary neutralization after use.

Decycle therefore aims to offer a carbon-neutral and safer option for the recycling of small electrical appliances and metals on a larger scale. To do this, they will host the process at a waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling plant in the North East of England, jointly operated by them and recycling company GAP Group.

Using DES chemistry, the GAP Group predicts that 5,000 tonnes of high-quality e-waste will be recycled per year at the facility, hoping to increase the 20% of global e-waste recycled each year using primarily foundries.

While this partnership is about to take off, Decycle is looking to develop other joint ventures in the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia in the coming months.

Dr Rob Harris, Chief Technology Officer at Decycle and a researcher at the university, said: “The technology we have developed to address the e-waste challenge is very exciting and could be a game-changer. I feel incredibly honored and excited to have expert validation of the technology and what we do at Descycle.

“By receiving such a prestigious grant as the Future Leaders Fellowship to pursue the path of e-waste commercialization, and also having been shortlisted to make the final of the RSC’s Emerging Technologies competition, it looks like we are gaining a lot of interest in being able to make it a huge success.

Professor Sarah Davies, Head of Leicester College of Science and Engineering, added: “The groundbreaking chemical research of the last 20 years at Leicester underpins these new processing technologies that allow us to solve major problems in global importance.

“Dr. Harris’ work demonstrates how the University’s cutting-edge research is making a difference in the world. The Fellowship award recognizes Dr Harris as one of the UK’s most promising research leaders.

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