UBC researchers develop novel technique for recycling cell phone fiberglass

In a time where technology is evolving by the second, and new devices and programs come out everyday, it is never too soon for a once-prized electronic object to be deemed obsolete and tossed aside. As innocent as this may appear, the repercussions of ill-mannered disposal of technology are concerning.

One significant example of a device whose waste poses concern is the cellphone. Engineers have devised methods to extract the precious metals within the device — such as the gold, copper and palladium — but the fiberglass circuit board poses an issue because there is not an efficient and practical manner to extract something of use from it.

UBC mining engineering professor Maria Holuszko and PhD student Amit Kumar have teamed up to research and develop methodologies to eliminate destructive waste produced by the disposal of electronics.

Holuszko said that the level of e-waste that is present in landfills, unfortunately, is rapidly expanding.

“Approximately two billion phones are sold per year and in 2016, the amount of e-waste in the landfills was approximately 46 million tonnes,” Holuszko said. “There is a four per cent e-waste growth rate, which is highly concerning.”

Holuszko and Kumar’s research paper notes that most countries suffer from greater production of harmful gases and chemicals from the landfill accumulation of the circuit board structures, which are composed of fiberglass and resin. The rigid, interwoven structure of fiberglass and resin in the circuit board makes extraction and reuse of the individual materials virtually impossible — and this inability to recycle means circuit boards are dumped in landfill systems.

Holuszko and Kumar designed a system relying on physical separation — specifically density separation — along with shredding, crushing and grinding of the materials to reduce their size and differentiate the resin from the fiberglass structures. The use of density separation allows the lightweight materials to move away from the heavyweight ones, allowing engineers to extract the fiberglass and reuse it in different applications or creations. The process relies on water-based gravity separation, which disintegrates the circuit board by placing the object in a liquid with intermediate density compared to the densities of the minerals the object is composed of. This then results in the heavy density grains sinking and the light grains floating.

Kumar highlighted that while this process is a giant leap forward in the reduction of destructive waste, it still does not allow for 100 per cent reuse of the disposed e-waste.

Holuszko explained that one of the key factors in recycling and reuse processes is that the methodologies used to decompose and reset the primary material must be affordable and relatively easy to replicate, in order to perform at a massive scale. Redesigning all the materials within an obsolete electronic would eliminate the value gained, as more resources are used in producing rather than recycling the actual primary product — so the process must also ensure proper use of the funds, time and labor invested.

The research team is currently working with BC recycling company, Ronin8, to work out the any existing knots within their system, as well as to create a commercially viable model to fuel an industry fighting for reuse of materials.

As they move forward with the expansion of their results, the researchers stressed the importance of ensuring that the production of the commercial model is environmentally efficient.

“When working with e-waste, companies may suggest using chemicals to reduce the material to a minimum, or something along similar lines — and while this may be economically efficient, it still has environmental repercussions, which is something we want to eliminate to the maximum extent,” said Kumar.

“So with Ronin, while we do have a pilot model, we need to ensure that the expansion into the commercial model is beneficial and viable on a monetary and environmental scale.”

Holuszko emphasized the importance of teamwork and sharing knowledge. As the research team moves towards the creation of a commercial model, they are also collaborating with international firms and governmental organizations.

The value of collaborations lies in the fact that everyone learns a lot more at a quicker pace and more avenues proposing various solutions can be explored. Additionally, if one company or country is more advanced in a certain arena, they can share success tips which would aid the rest.

When Holuszko and Kumar were asked what they view as one of their biggest achievements with this research project, the unanimous vote was the fact that this research is occurring in the first place.

“Considering the alarming statistics regarding e-waste disposal, it is crucial that society starts becoming more aware about the damage the careless disposal is causing, and working together to resolve the issue,” Holuszko said.

This goal seems to be well in progress, as the researchers also shared that Kumar’s research paper regarding the topic was widely downloaded.