3D Printing from Waste

16 May 2017
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Using plastics from the electronic goods (e-waste) we throw away, researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney have transformed this common but otherwise worthless waste into valuable plastic filaments for 3D printers.

During the 2017 visit of the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to India, presented India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a modern day replica of Mahatma Gandhi’s iconic spectacles --made using entirely from waste using this breakthrough Australian recycling technology.   Invented by Professor Veena Sahajwalla and team at UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology, this world-first technology is part of a cost-effective micro-factory solution that can safely recycle toxic e-waste into plastics filaments, valuable metal alloys and other materials, where ever it is stockpiled.

The US$1 trillion global electronics industry generated about 42 million tonnes of obsolete equipment in 2014 alone, a potential loss of some US$52 billion worth of embedded resources (UNEP).

In Australia, some 90% of e-waste is currently destined for landfill, posing serious environmental and health risks.

The world-first  ‘made from waste’ glasses

The unique micro-factory model demonstrates that e-waste can be safely and cost-effectively processed not only to recover valuable metals, but also the problematic and low value components of e-waste such as plastics.  To date, e-waste recycling has focused mostly on extracting metals due to a readily available and profitable commercial market for the various embedded metallic resources such as gold, iron, silver, copper, platinum and palladium. The high volumes of waste plastics have been largely ignored, partly due to the technical barriers to separating then out, but largely due to a lack of a commercially-viable processes for their recovery and reuse. The SMaRT Centre’s micro-factory model overcomes both these challenges. These otherwise worthless plastics can be transformed into high value materials such as 3D printing filaments. The global market for the filaments is expected to be worth US$6.6 billion by 2026.

How does it work?

Using a combination of automated drones and robotic arms, e-waste is separated into its parts such as plastic casings, resource-rich printed circuit boards (PCBs), glass screens etc. A mobile phone, for example contains 45% plastics by weight.

The identification of valuable components is performed by drones with operated using a proprietary SMaRT Centre visual identification program (VIP), while the sorting is performed by the robotic arms.

At lower temperatures, plastic waste can be transformed into 3D printing filaments as well as other high value plastic-based products using an extruder. The UNSW team is also in the final stages of optimising the production of silicon carbide nanoparticles from the complex mixed glasses and plastics within e-waste using the same micro-factory model.

Silicon carbide nanoparticles are a very useful industrial additive, with a current market value of between $150 to $500 per kg, depending on purity.

The sorted PCBs are in themselves a high value commodity which can be fed into a small high temperature furnace within the e-waste micro-factory – or even on sold to other processors. By precisely controlling the furnace temperature and operating conditions valuable metal alloys can be selectively extracted using the micro-factory technology.

About UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT)

UNSW’s SMaRT green materials and technologies are underpinned by an unparalleled portfolio of knowledge developed over years of research in the SMaRT Centre’s labs, with valuable contributions from industry partners. That SMaRT Centre was founded by Director, ARC Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla, a world leading innovator in sustainable materials. Veena and her SMaRT Centre team of some 30 researchers are working with industry partners to deliver practical and commercially viable solutions for many complex wastes otherwise destined for landfill. In 2016 Veena was named one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers by Engineers Australia and was awarded the highly prestigious Jubilee Professorship by the Indian Academy of Sciences. These were the latest in a long list of honours. Veena also heads the ARC Green Manufacturing Hub based at the SMaRT Centre and is the inventor of ‘green steel’, her internationally commercialised steelmaking process utilising waste tyres.