Successful plasma trials recover precious metals from electronic waste
Tetronics International and Innovate UK have successfully completed plasma trials to recover precious metals from e-waste. Jerome Trefalt, the Project Manager for Tetronics gives an overview of the results and his learnings from the project.
Electronic waste is a growing problem in not just the UK, but all over the world. In 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated across the world, the equivalent of almost 4,500 Eiffel towers. This amount of e-waste has an estimated value of €55 billion worth of raw materials. With population growing and consumers even more hungry for the latest electronic gadgets, forecasts are pointing towards 52.2 million metric tonnes of e-waste by 2021.
This issue was recognised by Innovate UK, as Great Britain is the second biggest generator of e-waste in Europe, with 1.6 Million metric tonnes in 2016. To help combat this growing threat, Innovate UK partnered with Tetronics International to utilise our clean plasma technology to demonstrate the value that can be recovered from e-waste. The project objective was to optimise the UK process of recovering precious metals from e-waste by proving an economically viable solution of a scalable process that will allow the UK Industry to be self-sustainable and also demonstrate the viability of the circular economy.
This project would enable the UK to disrupt an inefficient chain of smelter/refiner for precious metal analysis and recovery and to create an indigenous business, leading to self-sufficiency from an estimated 400k tonnes per annum (tpa) of e-waste. The project represents a route to providing the missing links in the circular economy business model.
Utilising our plasma technology experience
The initial work for the project began in 2015 with the design and development phases. The beginnings of the project presented many challenges, but thanks to the talented team of engineers at Tetronics and the support of Innovate UK, all the challenges were overcome and helped lead to success.
Part of the project was to build a test unit suitable for treating calcined e-waste, and therefore it was decided to replicate a standard commercial unit to give us the most accurate results. The test unit comprised of a plasma furnace, a feed system, a robot, a dedicated off-gas system, a cooling system, a plasma power supply and cascading moulds.
Plasma trials begin to recover precious metals from e-waste
In September 2017 the first trial took place and alloy was tapped out of the furnace; a tremendous achievement for the first full test. The first alloy was richer in iron than anticipated which would be problematic for the electrolytic refining treatment that could be part of the final refining stage. After changing the pre-treatment process parameters, the subsequent trials produced a copper rich alloy which was within the anticipated boundaries and validated the objectives of the process.
The recovery efficiency was over 98.5% and the net profit across the plasma process was about £1,200 per tonne of low grade e-waste treated after allowing for operational costs of the plasma stage.
What’s next for plasma technology and e-waste recovery
The trials allowed us to gather a lot of technical information, know-how and empirical data on the process. Not only have we gained knowledge, but we also now have the ability to conduct actual plasma test with a commercial scale plasma unit. We will be able to assess precious metal recovery and create a business model tailored to each of our customers taking into consideration the variability in the E-waste material composition.
In early September 2018, I attended the Recycling and Waste Management (RWM) exhibition in Birmingham where we shared the success of the project and vision for the future. In partnership with Innovate UK we hosted our technology on a stand and met various delegates of the conference. 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.
Click here to watch a video of the plasma trials in action.
Click here to find out more about our electronic waste recovery solutions.
Click here to learn more about our plasma technology.