ARC Microrecycling Research Hub

The Microrecycling Hub is a five-year national program of cutting-edge research and development aimed to transform Australia’s waste and resource recovery industry by equipping it with advanced manufacturing capability, focusing on small-scale manufacturing of valuable materials recovered and reformed from complex battery and consumer wastes.

Australia’s waste and resource recovery industry is essential to the community and a significant contributor to the wellbeing of Australia’s economy and environment, with a turnover of over $15 billion per annum and employing 50,000 people. However, the industry is being increasingly challenged by problematic waste streams such as toxic batteries, coffee residue and biosolids, and government and community expectations are that these challenges must be met.

Over 14,000 tons of batteries and 70,000 tonnes of coffee waste are destined for landfill each year in Australia, adding to current environmental impacts. Yet these waste streams are, in fact, renewable resources if the valuable materials can be ‘unlocked’ and at a suitable scale. The value of the opportunity from the effective recycling of these waste streams is enormous and multi-faceted. For example, the lithium lost from discarded batteries constitutes a future (2036) economic loss to the Australian economy, due to the estimated potential recoverable value, of between $813 million and $3 billion based on 2019 commodity prices.

The Hub, commencing in 2021, aims to help transform the waste industry by establishing viable means to recover these ‘lost resources’ through the researching and development of novel advanced manufacturing technologies that create new pathways from low-value waste to value-added materials.

See this news story webpage for details on the announcement by the ARC and UNSW.

The first program establishes the overall chemical composition of organics and relative proportion of metals and non-metals in batteries and information about harmful components and organic chemicals. Studies will involve the detailed characterisation of waste batteries, both single use and rechargeable batteries and consumer wastes along with information on waste types and quantities. Temperature behaviour of multi-metal components (nickel, cobalt, zinc and manganese components) in the temperature range of (900-1550°C) will be studied in a horizontal tubular furnace and dual chamber furnace using different heating rates and reaction times. Mechanisms of multi-component high temperature in-situ reactions and their kinetics will be studied using high temperature laser scanning confocal microscope (confocal microscopy up to temperatures of 1700oC). The study will also be carried out at different temperatures to investigate the alloying, phase separation, vaporisation and condensation behaviour of the materials in waste. This in-situ record of behaviour of waste materials during the rapid heating and cooling will enable us to design the experiments for selective synthesis of different materials at different temperatures and develop the process. Some of the electrolytes and materials used in waste batteries are harmful, hence the program will capture harmful gases and metals using absorbents. 

Embedded within batteries and its electronic components are a range of valuable elements such as Co, Ni, Cu, and rare earth metals (La, Ce, Nd, Pr, Dy). Depending on the type of battery, these elements are distributed in different forms between the cathode and anode. This hub research is based on “thermal isolation” techniques pioneered in the SMaRT Centre. The process includes two stages with the first one to target the dissociation of phases at low temperature and the second stage to focus on selective synthesis of different metals and oxides using reduction and dissolution at high temperature. Depending on the type of battery, the environment in the first stage can be either inert or oxidising. The thermodynamic driving force for thermal isolation to occur, is based on CO/CO2 ratio in the system and the affinity of different metals to oxygen as a function of temperature. The different oxygen affinities of the metals can be used as a driving force in the selective synthesis of the materials from waste batteries across a range of temperatures. This program will comrpise:

Project 2a: Ni-MH batteries 

Project 2b: Lithium ion batteries LIBs

Project 2c. Single use alkaline and zinc carbon (Zn-C) batteries

Project 2d: Synthesis of carbon from consumer wastes (i.e. coffee, biosolid)

The materials (i.e. carbon, metallic alloys and oxides) synthesised from spent batteries and consumer wastes through programs (2a, b, c, d), will undergo a comprehensive characterisation study so they can be investigated for further applications. For example, the quality of the synthesised carbon from consumer waste will be investigated in terms of purity, surface area, particle size distribution, and morphology. Electrochemical performance of the synthesised carbon will then be examined to determine if the synthesised carbon can deliver desirable electrochemical performance. In case that it requires further modification in terms of chemical and physical characteristics, the thermal isolation process will be modified, and the material will be subjected to a refinement stage based on the chemical composition and impurity. 

Project 4a: Metal and metal oxide 

Depending on the type of synthesised oxides, nano-structured metal oxide will be synthesised via thermal isolation (program 2c) or aqueous methods such as co-precipitation, hydro-gel, hydrothermal and spin coating. The synthesised nano-structured oxides with different morphologies will be examined using a range of techniques such as FE-SEM, HR-TEM, XPS, Raman spectroscopy, FTIR, and BET. The resulting metal oxides (i.e. REO, Mn oxide, Zn oxide) can be potentially used for the generation of synthesis gas (syngas) via thermochemical redox cycles.

Project 4b: Carbon 

Activated carbon is widely utilised in supercapacitor, fuel cell and battery applications owing to their high specific surface area. A wide range of carbon with various physical and chemical properties will be synthesised based on temperature, reaction timing and the environment of the thermal processing. Various types of carbon will be customised based on the property and quality of the carbon which is required by different end users. BET, FE-SEM and Raman spectroscopy as indicators of the quality of the carbon will be used in this project. The investigated and successful quality electrode materials extracted from recycled batteries and consumer waste will undergo battery prototyping.
 

Program 5 is structured around life cycle assessment of microrecycling science and microfactory technology to evaluate their effect on the environment which will be led by expert collaborators at UTS.  

Project 5a: Life Cycle Assessment

The Hub will evaluate environmental impacts of new products made with recycled inputs. Researchers will use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impact potential of products made with synthesised metal, metal oxide and carbon from the microrecycling research hub and compare impacts relative to the use of new materials for product manufacture. For the first time, it will identify methodological enhancements to LCA required to deal with manufactured materials arising from the technologies developed in the Hub across multiple use cycles. 

Project 5b: Economic and policy enablers

In this program the hub will assess the economic and policy enablers for microfactory recycling of batteries and consumer wastes. The development of pathways for industrial application will be explored in terms of regulatory restrictions and incentive frameworks, in conjunction with separate economic modelling and business case analysis. This project will assess national and international market potential and techno-economics and identify where current policy setting and regulations, are enabling or constraining for the operation this new technology. This includes looking at Australia’s remote geography where makes remote locations with waste stockpiles will be investigated as ideal test-beds for the for the real-market economics of the developed technology. This program will integrate closely with Program 1 as the information on volumes of waste will be invaluable in driving policy. Program 5 will also work with Programs 3 and 4 to guide the decisions in product development accounting for factors such as regulatory restrictions.

The viability and benefits of the Hub outcomes viz-a-viz the circular economy, which combines economic development with environmental and social benefits, will be investigated in this program. Sustainability assessments involve the quantification of the complete supply chain impacts of value-added materials, products and processes. It is crucial to take into account all upstream supply chains to get a holistic picture of the impacts. Multi-regional input-output analysis is a technique for assessing the supply chain impacts of a product, business, organisation, or a country. This technique relies on input-output tables that document the flow of money between existing sectors of an economy (i.e. these tables provide a snapshot of the economy). These tables can be augmented with data on novel industries to analyse the economy-wide impacts of new industries on the economy. This program will utilise the fundamental science developed in program 2 and 3 to investigate the possible outcomes of impacting the environment and society utilising the new science. The Program will compare it to the collected information in Program 1 and 5 to highlight the improvements made by using the new processes. Program 6 will also work closely with program 4 to understand how the new products will open markets and meet current market demands.