Big picture: R&D into micro-factories for the future

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Micro e-waste recycling offers the opportunity for a major paradigm shift – to transform waste destined for landfill into beautiful valuable materials. Unlike present e-waste recycling through large-scale smelters with little regard to underlying compositions of metal alloys, micro-recycling preserves quality and value of the recycled product.

At the SMaRT Centre we are investigating the idea of the micro‐factory in tune with the research into the transformation of difficult to recycle waste into highly valuable materials. Instead of the traditional industry model, we are looking at small scale technology easily, and cleanly, integrated within communities. By working at the local community level the aim is to create high value resources that can go back to the community itself. So there is an investment that the city has made in collecting the waste and processing it and delivering value from it, and that investment can be put back into the community. If we start to attach a direct value to the difficult to recycle end‐of‐life products, many of which are currently going to landfill or to offshore processing, the community will put in the effort too.

We must look at cities and local councils not just as a warehouse of waste, but as a warehouse of elements. This shifts the traditional recycling process completely and creates a new system for supplying waste resources to industry and to manufacturers. With our experience working with industry at the SMaRT Centre we know that it is possible to use waste materials as raw materials for manufacturing processes. And that’s really where the shift in thinking comes in. Cities, councils and the manufacturing industry are in the perfect position to redesign the waste stream system at a local level that will benefit local communities in cities and rural communities.

Research into end-to-end micro-recyling using intelligent robots to close the e-waste loop

The SMaRT Centre has teamed up with SME Robological to R&D a vertically integrated micro-recycling solution for e-waste separation using a Baxter robot as key enabler. The SMaRT Centre has already developed techniques to recover precious metals from e-waste and Baxter will bring this process closer to commercial viability by reducing the intense/dangerous manual labour required to sort and recover. Baxter’s price point and flexibility makes this an appealing solution in closing the loop in e-waste recycling at the micro-scale level. In the first phase of the collaborative project, Robological will use a Baxter robot (SMaRTi) to de-solder and remove electronic components from discarded electronic Printed Circuit Boards (PCB). The robot will sort components based on their recyclable value.