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Unlocking valuable metals lying in wait in Australia’s urban mine

Innovation in recycling, manufacturing and critical minerals processing sought in the Australian government’s new 2020 Federal Budget ‘could not have come at a better time’, writes Professor Veena Sahajwalla, director of the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Sustainable Materials & Technology.

Years of research underpinning newly developed recycling science and technologies in these areas can help supercharge budget ambitions and what I call a new ‘green manufacturing’ future. The widespread call for using hydrogen and other ‘renewable’ resources in steel making comes more than 10 years after Australia invented ‘green steel’ technology, patented as Polymer Injection Technology.

This green steel technology is already paving the way for green manufacturing globally, using hydrogen and carbon from old rubber tyres and plastics as an alternative to coal and coke, traditionally crucial ingredients for electric arc furnace steel making.

New research at my SMaRT Centre has found another way that could contribute to this new ‘green manufacturing’ revolution. We’ve developed a technology to create green aluminium by cleanly separating it from plastics and other materials in mixed materials packaging wastes, like food packaging and coffee capsules.

These sorts of technologies and innovations need to find their way into widespread use across our industries, especially for the important small to medium sized businesses that are the economic engine room of the nation. The key is to use the 2020 Budget initiatives, and this new Covid-era focus on greater onshore manufacturing capability, to translate our proven domestic research and development innovations, as well as those to come, into broad industrial applications.

That is why it is exciting to hear about Australia’s newly announced Recycling Modernisation Fund, as well as the six budget priority areas announced by the prime minister at the National Press Club, particularly those relating to manufacturing and recycling, resources technology and critical minerals processing.

Imagine being able to harness critical materials and precious metals like cobalt, gold, palladium and platinum from domestic electronic waste for use as feedstock in local manufacturing. This could create valuable export opportunities while reducing the need for virgin materials as well as all the associated environmental and economic costs.

Therefore, we need these newly announced measures focussing on manufacturing and recycling, and on critical minerals processing, to accelerate the collaboration between research institutions and industry. But more importantly, I see this as a vital opportunity to create an alignment between manufacturing and recycling because these two sectors are currently seen as separate areas with little interaction and collaboration.

We need this new alignment if we are going to get the required innovations for these sectors and to enhance our sovereign capability in addition to being known as the suppliers of primary materials. A capability to transform and reform waste materials into manufacturing feedstock, new materials and products should be central to this alignment and the Budget initiatives.

Who would have thought rubber tyres and plastics can be used as raw materials for steel making, for instance, or that we can reform textiles and glass into new age and beautiful ceramics for the built environment? These sorts of discoveries from the laboratories of our universities and research institutions need to find their way into small, medium and large scale manufacturing and recycling. This would be a major boost to the existing and traditional methods of recycling.

The downfall of existing and traditional recycling is that it mostly creates low value products. We need it to create high value products and materials that can add to and even create new supply chains and boost our manufacturing capability.

While Covid has unearthed weaknesses in our efforts to meet sovereign needs and challenges, we can start a whole new ‘green materials’ movement where waste is used as renewable resources for manufacturing.

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