Sites as small as 50 square metres could be transformed into “microfactories” that can process waste into valuable, sellable products, thanks to new technology out of the University of NSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT).
On Wednesday, the world’s first small, modular recycling plant was launched by NSW environment minister Gabrielle Upton at the university, focused on e-waste. The plant is capable of breaking down e-waste into products like metal alloys, nanoparticles for industrial-grade ceramics and filaments for 3D printing.
Led by SMaRT Centre director Professor Veena Sahajwalla (recently part of The Fifth Estate’s Visit Tomorrowland event), the technology promises to help solve a growing crisis in Australia following China’s ban on importing certain types of waste.
The microfactories contain a number of modules to break down e-waste and extract resources safely. First the e-waste is crushed, then a simple robot is used to extract useful parts. Next materials are heated in a small furnace to separate parts into useable materials like metal alloys. Other plastics can enter another module to produce 3D printer filaments.
Professor Sahajwalla says microfactories can divert materials from being burnt and landfilled by turning them into “value-added substances and products”.
As the modular systems are small and transportable they can be located where waste accrues.
“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,” she says.
The new gold mines
“We have proven you can transform just about anything at the micro-level and transform waste streams into value-added products.”
E-waste like mobile phones is a veritable (and literal) goldmine. For example, a tonne of mobile phones (about 6000) contains 130kg of copper, 3.5kg of silver, 340 grams of gold and 140 grams of palladium, together worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“The alternative to stone”
Professor Sahajwalla told The Fifth Estate the next iteration of microfactory, to be launched later this year, would focus more on glass, with end products destined for the built environment sector.
“Basically what we’re doing is making panels,” she says.
“So these are sustainable panels that could be for all types of interiors, whether they’re kitchen bench tops, or they could be pavers, or they could be tiles.
“The point of all of this is it allows us to use glass in a way that is more value-added, because it’s got to be comparable to existing product ranges that people are willing to pay good money for.”
Professor Sahajwalla says a lot of built environment products are currently imported, but comparable products could instead be made locally with waste glass, which the country is currently stockpiling.
“So when you talk about all of these products in the built environment – people purchase these things; people import these things. A lot of this [material in buildings] is imported, but, ironically, on the other hand we have all of this waste glass that in fact can serve a fantastic purpose in becoming a more sustainable alternative to all the stone-based products.”
Professor Sahajwalla says the panels made by the upcoming microfactory could be called “the alternative to stone”.
And there’s opportunities for other materials too.
“So we want to bring in not just glass – of course glass is a core component – but we want to bring in a lot of the other mixed resources that will naturally be present with glass. So there might be some paper mixed in there, some plastics mixed in there.
“So you can imagine all the work the government is doing in terms of collecting [drink] containers – the return and earn. At some point we’re going to have enough waste glass – not just from the built environment but from consumer items – that you could potentially say that every little regional town would be able to have its own glass microfactory.”
This touches on what Professor Sahajwalla thinks is one of the most exciting parts of the technology – its ability to support regional manufacturing.
She gives the example of a small regional window manufacturer whose products have plastics in them. Using a microfactory the manufacturer could use their own residue waste plastics to create filaments to 3D print products for their business.
“So there is this market that then gets created, which replaces the current import market.”
Entire communities or towns could decide to install a microfactory to turn plastic waste into filaments, which could then be used to create commonly imported plastic products.
“But you don’t even have to be in the market supplying 3D-printed products; you could just supply the filaments.”
The vision, however, requires government support, as many small business could find initial costs prohibitive. However, government could, for example, help fund a centrally located microfactory that many businesses could use.
In the end, Professor Sahajwalla says governments need to recognise that the manufacturing industry is key to dealing with the waste crisis.
“Governments need to recognise that if you want to solve the recycling challenge, it’s got to be connected to manufacturing. You can’t magically make [waste] disappear. It’s a material that has to be upcycled and value-added in a way that businesses, consumers, industries can use it. And that value chain needs to happen through manufacturing.”