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How e-waste recycling solutions could boost the clean energy transition

a microchip from a computer
Photo by Vishnu Mohanan on Unsplash

Chemicals innovation could help recover metals from electronic waste, a cleaner approach to their extraction. New technologies could replace the highly pollutive methods used in traditional mining and accelerate circular approaches to electronics.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the world produces more than 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) annually.  The value of this waste is over $62.5 billion, more than the GDP of most countries. If current policies remain in place, the volume of e-waste is expected to more than double by 2050 to 120 million tonnes.

However, only 20% of electronics are recycled, with the remaining 80% ending up in landfills or being informally recycled, much of it by hand in developing countries.  The tossed electronics not only pose a health and environment threat, but they are also hoarding much of the world’s precious metals.

The WEF estimated that there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore, and estimates that around 7% of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste.

The recovery of these materials cannot only support a thriving circular economy, but the transition to clean energy. According to intergovernmental organisation the International Energy Agency (IEA),  a shift to clean energy systems will drive a huge increase in demand for precious metals and critical minerals.

New e-waste recycling solutions are emerging globally

To tackle the growing volume of e-waste globally, many new solutions are emerging to recover crucial precious metals and minerals. In the past, recycling critical metals from electronics has been an expensive, energy-intensive, and difficult process – but some emerging technologies are looking to change that.

The UK’s Royal Mint (TRM) announced this year it had acquired Canadian tech company Excir’s sustainable precious metal technology to recover gold as well as other precious and rare earth metals from discarded electronics.

The technology selectively targets and extracts precious metals from circuit boards, turning them into gold rich liquid whereby gold can be recovered using precipitation.

Bacteria and chemicals at the forefront of e-waste recycling revolution

Another solution being used to recover precious metals from e-waste is bacteria. New Zealand start-up Mint Innovation has developed a solution that uses microbes and low-cost chemicals to recover metals such as gold, palladium, copper, cobalt and lithium.

The start-up claims that they can reduce carbon emissions by up to 90% by recovering metals such as gold compared to conventional mining or smelting. They also claim to use only 2% of the power and water per kilogram of gold compared with conventional mined resources.

The chemical industry can also play a key role in developing solutions to recycle e-waste. UK waste management company GAP Group recently announced it has teamed up with chem-tech firm Descycle to build a joint multi-million pound e-waste facility in North East England.

The new facility will use a new technology based on a class of chemistry know as “deep eutectic solvents” that was developed by scientists at the University of Leicester in the early 2000s. It dissolves the target metals into a solution without the need for toxic chemicals or high temperatures. The resulting solution can be recycled and used again, all with a “very low” carbon footprint.

One of the first documented cases of DES having applications in e-waste was when University of Leicester geologists approached the DES inventors at Leicester to design a DES chemistry to recover gold from fossils which had been coated to enable enhanced microscopic visualisation of the fossils’ features, without damaging the underlying fossil.

Researchers at the University devised a DES combination which dissolved the gold which left the fossil intact. Since then, these DES chemistries have been tested on a variety of gold concentrates and ores as an alternative cyanide and mercury leaching to great success.

The emergence of these new e-waste solutions can help decrease both costs and the impact on the environment, while helping recover and reuse the precious metals needed to power a growing demand as the world moves to a clean energy system.

Growing demand for clean energy means a growing demand for metals

Clean energy technologies are becoming the fastest-growing segment of critical minerals according to the IEA. The organisation estimates that the clean energy sector’s share of total demand will rise significantly over the next two decades.

Overall, the IEA estimates that the world will require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 compared to today to stay aligned with their net zero by 2050 scenario. This rise in demand could be up to over 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium.

Already, electric vehicles and battery storage have pushed consumer electronics out of the top spot as the largest consumer of lithium. The expansion of electricity distributions networks also means that copper demand could double in the next twenty years.

Renewable energy sector could benefit from more efficient e-waste recycling

The renewable energy sector will also need critical minerals. Offshore wind is the most metal-intensive energy source, requiring 8,000 kg of copper and 5,500 kg of zinc per MW of energy produced. Onshore wind and solar PV also demand over double the critical minerals required for fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.

While the renewable energy sectors are looking to develop new materials that are more sustainable to build future projects, these solutions are only beginning to be deployed and demand for new renewable energy capacity is reaching an all-time high with a record $226 billion invested in renewable energy in the first half of 2022.

The rise in demand for electric vehicles, renewable energy, batteries, and other clean energy solutions as countries transition to net zero will put huge pressures on the supply of critical minerals. If demand cannot be met, this risks slowing down the deployment of clean energy technologies and hiking up their costs.

Considering the urgency of climate action and a clean energy transition, this is a risk that the world cannot afford if countries have any chance of meeting net zero targets. Continuing to explore how we can extract and recycle precious metals from e-waste offers an alternative solution to meeting this unprecedented demand by offering cleaner and cheaper critical minerals as part of a circular economy.

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