Researchers Use Ultrasound to Recover Gold from Electronic Scrap

The last few months have been ripe with reports on new research related to material recovery from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-scrap” or “e-waste”), as highlighted in a previous post. I’ve learned of yet another exciting innovation in this field, thanks to a feature written by Jared Paben in the latest edition (4/19/18) of E-Scrap News.

As Paben reports, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a method to use ultrasonic waves, coupled with surfactants, to cheaply and efficiently recover gold from scrap electronics. Their experiments involved application of two different surfactants to the surface of a cell phone SIM card, which was then submerged in water. Ultrasonic waves were applied, which imploded micro-bubbles on the SIM card’s surface. Upon collapse of these micro-bubbles, micro-jets ejected gold nanoparticles from the card’s surface, and the nanoparticles were captured and stabilized by the surfactants.

According to the research group’s paper, published in the journal Small on 3/24/18), this mechanical method may not only present an effective way of reclaiming gold and other metals from electronic scrap, but could potentially be used to manufacture gold nanoparticles from native gold metal directly upon recovery from mining, which they say “may represent the greenest possible approach to nanoparticle synthesis.” (Citation: J. Watt, M. J. Austin, C. K. Simocko, D. V. Pete, J. Chavez, L. M. Ammerman, D. L. Huber, Small 2018, 1703615. https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201703615)

You can read more about this research in a 4/3/18 article from New Scientist.

To learn about cavitation and cavitation bubbles, the phenomena which allow this mechanical process to work, see https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/cavitationbubbles.jsp and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavitation.

For more information on gold in electronics, see How Much Gold is in Smartphones and Computers? and Uses of Gold in Industry, Medicine, Computers, Electronics, Jewelry.

To learn about the properties and applications of gold nanoparticles, see https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/technical-documents/articles/materials-science/nanomaterials/gold-nanoparticles.html.

Further Developments in E-Waste Recycling

In a previous post, we discussed how researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed an energy-efficient, non-toxic, nondestructive chemical process to recover polymers from the complex plastic blends found in items like cellphone cases.

But that’s not the only exciting news this Earth Month related to innovations in reclaiming materials from electronic scrap (commonly referred to as “e-waste”). In a GreenBiz article dated 4/18/18, Heather Clancy highlights an electrochemical process developed by Canadian venture EnviroLeach Technologies, which is similar to the conventional method of leaching gold and other metals out of ores, concentrates and tailings. The difference is that “instead of using cyanide, the patent-pending formula uses five non-toxic, FDA-approved ingredients that are combined with water at ambient temperatures.’The process does not require pressure, elevated temperatures, complex process circuits, intensive gas monitoring or costly detoxification systems,’ explained EnviroLeach on its website.” Read the full story on the GreenBiz web site. You can also check out the EnviroLeach web site for further information. This development is particularly encouraging considering a recent article from Environmental Leader reporting that n a study by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing and Macquarie University in Australia, which suggests extracting metals from e-waste costs 13 times less than mining ore. Perhaps the new process will make the economic benefit even more striking, while minimizing environmental impacts.

Elsewhere in Canada, researchers at the University of British Columbia “have perfected a process to efficiently separate fibreglass and resin – two of the most commonly discarded parts of a cellphone – bringing them closer to their goal of a zero-waste cellphone.” As UBC News reports, “Most e-waste recycling firms focus on recovering useful metals like gold, silver, copper and palladium, which can be used to manufacture other products. But nonmetal parts like fibreglass and resins, which make up the bulk of cellphones’ printed circuit boards, are generally discarded because they’re less valuable and more difficult to process. They’re either fed to incinerators or become landfill, where they can leach hazardous chemicals into groundwater, soil and air.” But UBC mining engineering professor Maria Holuszko, along with PhD student Amit Kumar, has developed a process using gravity separation “and other simple phycial techniques to process cellphone fibreglass and resins in an environmentally neutral fashion.” The next step in pursuing this innovation is developing a large-scale commercial model of the process with their industrial partner and recycling company Ronin8. Read the full UBC article on the UBC News web site.

Read more at https://ifixit.org/recycling on why electronics recycling, though of course important, should not be considered the answer to the problem of ever-growing amounts of e-waste, due to the difficulty in reclaiming materials (eased slowly by new innovations like the ones described above) and energy use. While these developments in electronic scrap recycling are heartening, it’s important to remember to keep your electronics in service as long as possible through repair and upgrades, and when you no longer want or need a functioning device, sell or donate it so someone else can use it. Recycling should only come at the ultimate end of a device’s useful life.

Joint ECOLOGO/EPEAT Certification for Mobile Phones Announced

I’ve written a fair amount on this blog about the EPEAT product registry, and its usefulness for consumers and procurement officers interested in identifying more sustainably-produced electronics devices. Previously the registry was only available for the PCs and displays (including tablets), imaging equipment (which includes printers, copiers, scanners and multifunction devices) and televisions. There has been talk for many years about the development of criteria to register mobile phones, but the multi-stakeholder process of criteria development is a long and rigorous process which takes time.

Those of us who have been waiting for those mobile phone criteria were delighted to hear the recent news that the Green Electronics Council, the organization that administers the EPEAT product registry and UL Environment, a business division of Underwriters Laboratories, a leading name in product safety, had announced a joint-certification to enable mobile phones that are certified to the ANSI/UL 110 sustainability standard to also be featured on the EPEAT Registry. This joint ECOLOGO/EPEAT certification is now available for mobile phone brands that want to certify their products to the latest UL 110 standard and also make them eligible for procurements and tenders that require EPEAT-registered products.

According to the UL Environment web site, “Products with this mark have achieved certification to lifecycle-based standards specifically tailored for mobile phones and are subject to ongoing verification through the EPEAT system. This unprecedented combination of pre- and post-market auditing ensures the credibility of manufacturers’ sustainability claims. It also allows the thousands of governments, institutions and businesses worldwide with an EPEAT purchasing policy to quantify how mobile phones contribute to their sustainable-procurement goals.”

While you cannot yet search the EPEAT registry for phones, according to the Green Electronics Council, “Several of the world’s most popular mobile-phone brands have already begun the pre-assessment process for UL ECOLOGO/EPEAT Joint Certification, while wireless carriers worldwide have expressed interest in working with vendors to require phones that carry the UL ECOLOGO/EPEAT joint certification mark.” I for one look forward to the day in the near future when we can search the EPEAT registry when making decisions about new phone purchases!

For more information see the Green Electronics Council press release, and the UL Environment page on the joint ECOLOGO/EPEAT certification.

ecologo/EPEAT mark

Amnesty International Shines a Spotlight on Cobalt Supply Chains

amnestylogoIn case you missed it, a new report by Amnesty International has been making headlines as it ties child labor and unsafe working conditions to electronics manufacturing supply chains. See for example, “Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, Amnesty says” (Annie Kelly for The Guardian, 1/18/16) and “Your Smartphone May Be Linked to Child Labor” (Jan Lee for Triple Pundit, 1/21/16).

According to the report, over half the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 20% of that is from artisanal mines where young children may be involved in unsafe practices exposing them to high levels of cobalt. From the Triple Pundit article linked to above, ‘“As with adult miners,” Amnesty International corroborated, “they were exposed to high levels of cobalt on a consistent basis, but did not even have gloves or face masks to wear.” In most cases, the authors pointed out, the financial gain of their work was nominal: “[The children reported] they worked for up to 12 hours a day in the mines, carrying heavy loads, to earn between one and two dollars a day.”’

Cobalt has a number of industrial applications, including widespread use in lithium ion battery cathodes. These batteries are used in hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as in our ubiquitous portable electronic devices, such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, digital cameras, and handheld games. While cobalt is an essential element in small quantities (it’s a component of vitamin B12), high levels of exposure may have adverse effects on the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and cause dermal, hematological, and immunological effects (see http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp33-c2.pdf).

The full report may be downloaded from the Amnesty International web site in English, Chinese, or French (PDF Format; 88 pages). According to the site: “This report documents the hazardous conditions in which artisanal miners, including thousands of children, mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It goes on to trace how this cobalt is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices. Using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, and accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment. This report is the first comprehensive account of how cobalt enters the supply chain of many of the world’s leading brands.”

You can also check out the Amnesty International video below:

Reminder: Manuscripts for Special Edition of Challenges Due 12/31/15

challenges-logoManuscripts are still being accepted for the special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.” 

From the issue’s rationale:

“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.

While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.

It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”

If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at challenges@mdpi.com, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste#info. The deadline for manuscript submissions is December 31, 2015. Questions may be addressed to co-guest editor Joy Scrogum.

Free Champaign County (IL) Electronics Collection Scheduled for October 10

thumb1A free countywide residential electronics collection event will be held on Saturday, October 10, 2015 from 8 AM to noon at Parkland College, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., Champaign, IL. The collection will be in Parking Lot M; enter from Duncan Rd.

Residents may bring the following electronics items (working or non-working) to the collection event. The limit is 10 items per household.

Computer components:

  • Computers, printers, copiers, monitors*, keyboards, speakers, mice, cables, PDAs
  • Software, CDROM/floppy disks, UPS, tablet computers
  • Computer parts including but not limited to: circuit boards, hard drives, optical drives, power supplies, ribbon cables, RAM
  • Networking equipment, hubs, switches, routers, cables, modems, scanners
  • Ink cartridges

Entertainment:

  • Televisions*, VCRs, radios, stereo equipment, tape recorders, record players, remote controls, MP3 players, compact disc players, e-readers
  • Electronic toys, amplifiers, electronic keyboards
  • Hand-held gaming devices, game consoles, Walkmans, sewing machines
  • Digital cameras, camcorders

Communication Devices and Other Electronics:

  • Cash registers, typewriters, adding machines, calculators
  • Copiers, duplicators, voice recorders
  • Label makers
  • Portable power banks and coin counters
  • Telephones, PBX systems, answering machines, fax machines
  • CB radios, ham radios, cell phones, pagers, Black Berry/Palm Units, GPS units, Bluetooth serial port adapter
  • Rechargeable batteries, battery chargers and adapters, surge strips
  • Video recorders, video monitors, security systems, walki-talkies

Miscellaneous: cables/cords/wire

*not accepted: broken glass cathode-ray-tube televisions or broke glass cathode-ray-tube monitors. For a complete listing of items not accepted, please visit the Champaign County RRR webpage at www.co.champaign.il.us/rrr.

Smartphone Encore Challenge Finalists to be Announced in Earth Day Webinar

smartphone-encore-challenge-logo-v02In a previous post, I wrote about a new electronics-related competition debuted this year: the Smartphone Encore Challenge. The Challenge is a collaboration of Sprint, HOBI International, Brightstar, and Net Impact in which student teams were challenged to find profitable and innovative ways to repurpose old smartphones or their components. Participation was limited to the first 25 teams or individuals to register.

The winning individual or team will receive $5,000, which can be used toward attending a Startup Weekend to help take their business idea to the next level. The winners will also receive strategic guidance from executives at Sprint, Brightstar, and HOBI to strengthen their business model.

Tomorrow, April 22, 2015–Earth Day–Net Impact will present an “Issues in Depth” webinar, featuring the concepts of the winners of the Smartphone Encore Challenge and two runners-up. The webinar, entitled “The Circular Economy is Calling: Closing the Loop in the Smartphone Industry,” will also feature Darren Beck, Director of Environmental Initiatives at Sprint, who will share the successes and challenges of applying closed-loop strategies to Sprint’s business. The webinar begins at 11:00 CDT and you can register online at https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/6002673046428866561.

I can’t wait to see what the winning students have come up with! For more inspiring sustainable electronics ideas from college and university students, visit the Sustainable Electronics Initiative YouTube channel, where you can find winning entry videos from past years of the SEI International Sustainable Electronics Competition.

Free Champaign County (IL) Electronics Collection Scheduled for April 11

thumb1A free countywide residential electronics collection event will be held on Saturday, April 11, 2015 from 8 AM to noon at Parkland College, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., Champaign, IL. The collection will be in Parking Lot M; enter from Duncan Rd.

Residents may bring the following electronics items (working or non-working) to the collection event. The limit is 10 items per household.

Computer components:

  • Computers, printers, copiers, monitors*, keyboards, speakers, mice, cables, PDAs
  • Software, CDROM/floppy disks, UPS, tablet computers
  • Computer parts including but not limited to: circuit boards, hard drives, optical drives, power supplies, ribbon cables, RAM
  • Networking equipment, hubs, switches, routers, cables, modems, scanners
  • Ink cartridges

Entertainment:

  • Televisions*, VCRs, radios, stereo equipment, tape recorders, record players, remote controls, MP3 players, compact disc players, e-readers
  • Electronic toys, amplifiers, electronic keyboards
  • Hand-held gaming devices, game consoles, Walkmans, sewing machines
  • Digital cameras, camcorders

Communication Devices and Other Electronics:

  • Cash registers, typewriters, adding machines, calculators
  • Copiers, duplicators, voice recorders
  • Label makers
  • Portable power banks and coin counters
  • Telephones, PBX systems, answering machines, fax machines
  • CB radios, ham radios, cell phones, pagers, Black Berry/Palm Units, GPS units, Bluetooth serial port adapter
  • Rechargeable batteries, battery chargers and adapters, surge strips
  • Video recorders, video monitors, security systems, walki-talkies

Miscellaneous: cables/cords/wire

*not accepted: broken glass cathode-ray-tube televisions or broke glass cathode-ray-tube monitors. For a complete listing of items not accepted, please visit the Champaign County RRR webpage at www.co.champaign.il.us/rrr.

Smartphone Encore Challenge Seeks Innovative Reuse Concepts

The International Sustainable Electronics Competition ended in 2013 after inspiring students around the world to consider ways to extend the useful life of electronic devices. Now SEI is happy to witness the launch of another sustainable electronics student competition–this one focused on the reuse of smartphones or smartphone components. smartphone-encore-challenge-logo-v02

Sprint, in collaboration with HOBI International, Brightstar, and Net Impact, have announced the Smartphone Encore Challenge.

From the competition web site: “Millions of smartphones get discarded each year as consumers upgrade to new models. The old phones get tucked away in drawers or thrown away, burdening landfills. According to the EPA, only about 10% of phones in the U.S. are reused or recycled. It’s such a waste – these devices are still wonders of technology, with an amazing capacity to capture, process, store, and transfer data. They’re often chock full of features, including an accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, camera, and more. They’re also an untapped business opportunity…We want you to find profitable and innovative ways to repurpose old smartphones or their components. You get to put your creative and business skills to use addressing an important issue, and, if you win, you’ll get some support to put your idea in motion.”

Specifically, the winning team will receive $5000 which can be used toward attending a Startup Weekend (powered by Google for Entrepreneurs)  to work on the development of their idea. Winners will also receive guidance from executives at Sprint, Brightstar, and HOBI to strengthen their business model. “In addition, the winner and two runners up will be featured in a Net Impact ‘Issues in Depth’ webinar on Earth Day. They’ll also present their business ideas to sponsor executives through a videoconference, and will be highlighted in a national press release from Sprint.”

Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, if you’re interested, there are a couple of important points to note. First, participants need to be members of the Net Impact student community. Simple enough–it’s free to join. Next, be aware that students can choose to participate as individuals or as members of teams.

Most importantly, participation in the competition is limited to the first 25 registrants. Full details, including the registration form, are available on the competition web site.

Those lucky 25 will be shipped an entry kit containing:

  • Two (2) pre-owned Android smartphones for reference and prototyping — the devices will be fully activated with voice, text, and data for the length of the contest
  • List of device features/capabilities and guidance on disassembly/repair
  • List of estimated costs for the device as well as voice, text and data connectivity to help price your product
  • A consent form that all members of the team will need to sign and return
  • Pre-paid shipping label to return the devices at the end of the competition

Each team (or individual registrant) will develop a product concept and business pitch (and optionally a brief video). These ideas must be submitted by March 27, 2015, at 11:59 pm PT.

Expert judges will select one winner and two runners up, based upon criteria outlined on the competition web site.

So put your thinking caps on, students. Your solution might just become a reality.

Kill Switch Info Added to U.S. State & Local Legislation Page

In my last post, I noted some updates that had been made to the U.S. Federal Legislation page on the SEI web site, including information on the debate surrounding cell phone kill switches (scroll down to “Legislation and Policies that Apply to Electronics in Other Life-cycle Stages”).

I’ve added information on the two current State laws requiring cell phone kill switches to the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. Minnesota was the first to pass such a law, in May 2014, and California just became the second a few days ago. Both laws will go into effect on July 1, 2015.

A kill switch is a means to render a device inoperable if stolen, the idea being that such a function would reduce the rising problem of cell phone theft. Pressure for such legislation has been on the rise as reports of violence tied to cell phone theft have increased and received media attention. Similar, voluntarily implemented functions have been previously made available by some manufacturers, leading some to say that legislation is unnecessary. Concern has also been expressed by opponents about whether such disabling technology could be used with ill intent with the manipulation of hackers, the example of law enforcement officers having their phones rendered inoperable in a crisis being offered as a worst case scenario.

As I point out on SEI’s federal legislation page, one potential outcome of proposed kill switch technology often ignored by the media and general public is the exacerbation of the growing e-waste problem. Kill switches are meant to render a device completely inoperable so that thieves could not reinstate the device’s capabilities. This means a perfectly functioning phone would be rendered useless, except as fodder for recycling and materials reclamation. That in itself has lead some to argue that kill switch legislation won’t work to thwart crime–as long as there’s some value, however minimal, for the materials included in what would then be an expensive paperweight, someone will be willing to steal the device, those with this viewpoint claim. For me, however, the broader issue has been the discouragement of reuse. Lots of materials and energy go into creation of our electronics–much more energy, for example, is expended in the manufacturing of electronics than is expended in their use. From a lifecycle perspective, it’s particularly important to extend the useful life of these devices. Would kill switch legislation, which may or may not end up discouraging crime, end up making it more difficult for useful products to be used to the full extent possible, I’ve wondered? What if someone misplaced their phone, had it deactivated, and then found it or had it returned by a Good Samaritan–only to find it useless? What if the authorities apprehended a thief and were able to retrieve and return a phone, again, only to leave the owner to the task of responsibly recycling and replacing it?

The encouraging thing about California’s legislation is that it requires that the “technological solution” to rendering the device inoperable upon theft be reversible, “so that if an authorized user obtains possession of the smartphone after the essential features of the smartphone have been rendered inoperable, the operation of those essential features can be restored by an authorized user.” How all of that will work, and work smoothly, remains to be seen. But this shows that legislators have heard concerns like the ones I expressed above from others, as well as arguments regarding hackers and terrorism, no matter how far fetched those might actually be, and have put some thought into countering unintended consequences.

At the end of the day, that’s what sustainability is really all about–trying to avoid and mitigate the unintended consequences of our actions and choices.