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Material shortage sparks modular e-scrap innovation

US researchers have found a novel way to recover minerals from electronic scrap, offering the possibility of making products to benefit national security.  

Owing to volatile market conditions and parts shortages, the US Department Of Defense has shown a marked interest recently in readily available e-scrap such as LEDs and microelectronic circuits. An important part of this is the R&D work carried out by West Virginia University, which has received funding of more than US$ 250 000 (EUR 252 000) from the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Leading the work are mechanical and aerospace engineering experts Professor Edward Sabolsky and assistant Professor Terence Musho. The latter is using computational thermodynamics to simulate the mineral recovery process while Sabolsky is validating the simulations to prove the results hold up in the real world.

They aim to extract seven elements from discarded electronics, particularly gallium, indium and tantalum. What sets their approach apart from current e-scrap solutions is ‘the ability to achieve very high temperatures very rapidly’, without using hazardous chemicals, to yield a modular recycling technology.

Because the equipment is relatively small in size, it can be easily dismantled and moved to a different location for testing. ‘That means the DoD can transport this technology to the point of disposal,’ Musho says. ‘An interesting application would be deploying our solution on US Navy ships. They could move this equipment around to different ports for waste recycling across the country.’

The West Virginia team envisions their work could make a big difference on a local scale, too. ‘You could have a point-of-disposal e-waste recycler in each community. That way, cities or municipalities could recycle their own electronics, get the raw materials out and sell those materials back to manufacturers.’

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