ABC feature on future electrification challenges

The ABC has published a feature on 'where and how will we get the metals to feed our future technology needs' and the role recycling needs to play, quoting UNSW SMaRT Centre Director, Prof Veena Sahajwalla about innovative ways to electrify the world.

Below is an excerpt - read the full story:

If you had a tonne of ore from a gold mine, and a tonne of iPhones, which is likely to contain more gold? What about silver?

You've probably guessed the reason for the question is that the answer is surprising. And yes, in both cases, it's the devices that are a richer source of the precious metals.

In fact, the metals for all Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic medals came from recycled e-waste.

Over two years, the organisers gathered enough gold, silver and bronze from small electronic devices to make the almost 5,000 medals awarded to the athletes.

And it's not just our computers and phones. 

Everything from electric cars to wind turbines and solar panels — things we need to transition the world to net-zero emissions — require an array of metals, like silver, palladium, platinum, copper, aluminium and rare-earths, such as neodymium.

So where will we get them from? Will we have enough? And what role can recycling and reuse play in ensuring we can supply our technology needs into the future?

What's the role of recycling?

There's a pervasive myth that renewable energy technologies like solar panels can't be recycled.

Like most myths, it's based on a kernel of truth, according to Dr Corkish.

The difficulty in recycling solar panels comes down to the clear coating that encapsulates the panels — ethylene vinyl acetate.

However, there are several methods — thermal, chemical and mechanical — of removing this coating.

The major issue though, especially as the cost of solar panels continues to drop, is that it's cheaper to buy new panels than recycle the old ones.

The solution, as is the case with recycling many types of materials, needs to be policy-driven.

Although our initial transition to clean energy can't be achieved through recycling alone, reusing those materials once they've been dug up will be crucial to achieving any sort of sustainable future, according to Veena Sahajwalla from the University of New South Wales.

Play Audio. Duration: 13 minutes 18 seconds

Professor Veena Sahajwalla discusses the future of recycling e-waste on the Science Show.

Download 18.3 MB

Professor Sahajwalla's team at the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) has developed e-waste "microfactories" which, she says, can be rolled out at a community scale for local resource recovery.

"Technologies developed and being developed by the SMaRT Centre can recycle and reform many of the materials from electronic waste that contain copper, manganese, zinc, gold and various rare-earth elements," Professor Sahajwalla said.

Professor Sahajwalla is one of many advocates of a transition to a circular economy — where the costs of recycling are factored into the cost of production and we move away from a linear model of putting constant pressure on virgin materials.

"With the growth in electric vehicles, wind turbines, domestic solar systems, and so many batteries ... it is often overlooked that almost all of the materials needed to electrify our world are finite in supply."

Other options to recycling include repurposing, such as installing electric car batteries into home storage systems once they're no longer viable in vehicles.

Fundamentally, though, if we're going to achieve any sort of environmentally sustainable, socially responsible future, we must consume less in the first place.

Second, according to Professor Sahajwalla, is to reimagine the concept of "waste".

"We need a change of mindset that values our materials and challenges our throw-away mentality," she said.

"New government policies pleasingly include rare-earths (such as neodymium found in computer hard drives) as a national priority and there is also a renewed focus across all levels of government to better manage our waste, recycling and manufacturing resources."