Researchers have discovered a new method of extracting minerals from electronic waste that uses significantly less energy than current techniques, produces ecofriendly waste and can reduce the demand for mined raw materials. The method is based on the flash Joule heating method, which was designed to produce thin graphene from carbon sources such as plastic and wood.
New adaptations by a group of researchers from Rice University will allow the technique to be used to recover substances including silver, gold, palladium and rhodium from waste, so they can be reused.
The method works by heating the waste to 3,124 degrees Celsius instantly, using a jolt of electricity that vaporizes the metals. The gases produced by the reaction are then let out for disposal, storage or separation. After this, only highly toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and chromium remain. This is what is removed next, leaving a product that contains minimal metals.
Given that more than 40 million tons of e-waste are generated around the globe annually, this method has a lot of potential and may be used by tech companies to source their raw materials without having to get them from regions or countries with conflict, corruption and security issues.
James Tour, a professor at Rice University, states that the method will reduce the need to go to different parts of the world to mine ores in dangerous and remote places, which uses a lot of water resources and strips the Earth’s surface. He explained that the researchers had discovered a way to extract precious metals from the waste and turn it into a sustainable resource, adding that a rising turnover of personal devices such as telephones had significantly increased electronic waste globally. At the moment, only 20% of this waste is recycled.
For their study, the scientists powdered circuit boards that they utilized to test the process, introducing additives such as table salt, Teflon and carbon black to enhance the recovery yield. They were guided by Dr. Bing Deng, who is the university’s postdoctoral research associate as well as the lead author of the study.
The method the researchers discovered uses roughly 940 kilowatt-hours for every ton of materials processed. This is almost 500 times less than the energy used by lab tube furnaces and about 80 times less than the energy used by commercial smelting furnaces. The researchers add that the method, which has been dubbed the Rice process, also eliminates the extensive purification needed by leaching and smelting processes. The study was reported in the “Nature Communications” journal.
Such metal recovery methods will provide a viable complement to the precious metals extraction companies such as Asia Broadband Inc. (OTC: AABB) as global demand for these metals keeps growing.
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