Researchers at the University of Leicester have been awarded funding and national recognition for their development of a clean and zero-carbon electronic waste-recycling process.
Having recently partnered with UK-based company Desycle to commercialise the process, the project has been shortlisted for the Environment Award at the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC) Emerging Technologies Competition.
The nomination followed confirmation that they would also be receiving £1.2 million in grant funding from the UKRI’s flagship scheme to continue development of the technology to expand the 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 high applicability in a wide range of material processing, particularly metals. The solvents dissolve target metals into a solution without needing toxic chemicals or high temperatures. Unlike other chemical-based e-waste processes, the solution is not consumed, meaning it is recyclable and can be used again.
The researchers first discovered their usability with e-waste when a group of Leicester geologists approached the DES inventors to use the technology to recover gold from fossils that had been coated to allow enhanced microscopic visualisation without damaging the sample’s features.
They were able to put together a DES process which would dissolve the gold while leaving the fossil intact. What then followed was testing DES chemistry on a variety of gold concentrates as an alternative to cyanide and mercury leaching. As well as e-waste recycling, the technology is now being tested by mining companies to extract metals in a much cleaner way, without putting minors at risk against other highly pollutive methods
This approach differs from other chemistry-based technologies in development, as the vast majority use very dangerous acids and oxidisers that are consumed need replacing on a regular basis. This creates high CO2 emissions, both from the transporting of these chemicals and their necessary neutralisation after use.
Descyle, therefore, aims to offer a carbon-neutral, safer option for small electricals and metals recycling on a wider scale. To do so, they will house the process in a waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling plant in the northeast of England, jointly operated by them and recycling company GAP Group.
Using DES chemistry, GAP Group predicts 5,000 tonnes of high grade e-waste will be recycled per year at the facility, hoping to increase the 20 per cent of global e-waste recycled each year using mainly smelters.
As this partnership is set to take off, Desycle is looking to develop other joint ventures in the US, Europe, Australia, and Asia in the coming months.
Dr Rob Harris, Chief Technology Officer at Desycle and researcher at the University, said: “The technology we have developed to tackle the e-waste challenge is very exciting and potentially a real game changer. I feel incredibly honoured and excited to have expert validation in the technology and what we are doing at Descycle.
“By being awarded such a prestigious grant as the Future Leaders Fellowship to continue the route to commercialisation in e-waste, and to also have been shortlisted to make the final of the RSC’s Emerging Technologies competition, it feels very much like we are gaining a lot of the right interest to be able to make a huge success of this.”
Professor Sarah Davies, Head of the College of Science and Engineering at Leicester, added: “Revolutionary chemistry research over the last 20 years at Leicester underpins these new processing technologies that are enabling us to tackle major issues of global significance.
“Dr Harris’s work demonstrates how the University’s world-leading research is making a difference in the world. The award of the fellowship recognises Dr Harris as one of the UK’s most promising research leaders.”