Materials

Plasma technology retrieves precious metals from e-waste

Electronic waste has been building up as the global demand for electronics increases every year. With the latest phones, laptops and other gadgets in high demand worldwide, it’s no wonder that 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were thrown away in 2016 – the equivalent of almost 4,500 Eiffel Towers, this adds up to an estimated €55 billion (£48.8 billion) worth of raw materials.

According to the Global E-Waste Monitor, an estimated 52.2 million tonnes of global e-waste is forecasted to be produced yearly by 2021, making it the world’s fastest growing waste-stream. In this context, the development of new recycling processes is paramount. Plasma technology retrieves precious metals from e-waste

Electronic waste processors Tetronics International, supported by £600,000 of funding from government investment agency Innovate UK, has developed a potential solution to the problem, using plasma to retrieve valuable materials from the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) often sent to landfill.

Read more: WEEE – A burning issue

Tetronics’ clean plasma technology turns old electronic devices into value by extracting precious metals such as gold, silver, copper and tin whilst eliminating the hazardous materials.

The heat and ultraviolet light properties of plasma, an ionised or electrically charged gas, are designed to smelt and separate precious metals in a furnace, whilst destroying any harmful elements. A non-hazardous vitrified material is left behind, which the company calls Plasmarok and which can be used as a building material for the construction industry.

The company states that recovery efficiency in trials of the technique was over 98.5 per cent, with a net profit of about £1,200 per tonne of low grade e-waste treated.

What could this mean for the metals recycling industry?

The company hopes that its plasma recovery technique could ‘enable the UK to disrupt an inefficient chain of smelter/refiner for precious metal analysis and recovery’, optimising the current process for recovering precious metals from e-waste and creating a ‘self-sufficient industry’. As Great Britain is currently the second biggest generator of e-waste in Europe, producing 1.6 million metric tonnes in 2016, this solution could help the UK industry to make better use of the waste it produces.

The trials have helped Tetronics develop the knowledge and equipment to conduct actual plasma tests with a commercial scale plasma unit. The company plans to assess the precious metal recovery possibilities of different types of e-waste, enabling it to create a business model tailored to each of its customers.

The solution was on show at this year’s RWM in Birmingham. Jerome Trefalt, Project Manager for Tetronics, said on the exhibition of the plasma technology that “it was great to meet so many interested parties and see just how much interest there is in improving e-waste operations within the UK.”

To find out more, check out Tetronics International’s website.
 

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