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By Fiona Hamann
November 5, 2017
E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream with the United Nations estimating that around 50 million tonnes of it will be dumped into landfill this year alone. E-waste is the term used to describe discarded electronic products such as mobile phones, computers, televisions, VCRs and DVD players, stereos, copiers, and fax machines.
In terms of embedded resources within those products, such as copper, silver, gold, and palladium, the loss to the economy is estimated to be around US$52 billion - simply thrown on to landfill. To put that into perspective, one tonne of mobile phones contains about 130 kilograms of copper (a concentration of about 10-20 per cent) which is at a higher concentration than can be found in virgin ore. Why wouldn’t we simply mine the waste?
The Sustainable Materials and Research Team (SMaRT) team at the University of NSW, led by Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla is doing just that. It has developed the concept of “micro-factories” to transform the waste into valuable new products that are set to impact the construction industry with its application. ARC Laureate Professor Sahajwalla is the founding director of SMaRT, and she has received numerous awards for her work in the field.
She was the first woman to be awarded the Jubilee Professorship by the Indian Academy of Sciences and was named as one Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers in 2016. Professor Sahajwalla made the list for Westpac’s 100 Women of Influence in 2015. She also made the list for the US Society for Manufacturing Engineers’ “Innovations that could change the way we Manufacture” in 2012 for her green steel technology. Now, she is in the process of establishing UNSW’s world-class SMaRT centre, making her research outcomes a reality and making huge inroads to changing international sustainable industry practises.
The university’s pilot micro-factory is already underway, processing e-waste which would ordinarily be tossed into landfill and converting it into useful products. Tempered glass, plastics, wood, and used textiles are already being transformed into bench tops, building panels, and flooring — and, best of, all they cost a fraction of the price of conventional building materials.
Micro-factories can be employed across a variety of industries including electronics where waste materials like silicon carbide are being recycled.
Professor Sahajwalla spoke exclusively with Jobsite about the potential of micro-factories in the construction industry.
“The beauty of the micro-factories is that they can be adapted for a whole range of input materials and waste wood, all of which will help define the end product,” she says. “The micro-factories are not limited to e-waste and can be configured to a variety of products. They have the potential to capture local features as defined by the waste in a particular area, such as utilising macadamia shells where that area may have an abundance that goes into landfill or is burned, or glass bottles in a wine growing region.”
The first micro-factory is expected to be operational in 2018. It will be located in NSW, but the plan is to create numerous mobile micro-factories (on the back of a truck). These could be taken to jobsites and could be used to manufacture bespoke building materials from local waste, cost-effectively.
Micro-factories can be configured for different products but those manufacturing 2D building materials, such as panels, will be able to manage a variety of input materials where manufacturing requires different heat levels. The science involved in an e-waste micro-factory is that by precise temperature control, various valuable metal alloys can be produced through selective thermal transformation.
They transform e-waste in its entirety (as a complex waste mix) — plastics, glass and metal, including all the impurities. Given that many of the waste products create toxins at such as furans and dioxins when heated to a specific temperature, it is vital to work at a range outside of that to create a new (and safe) purpose for what was once waste.
“The products we are already creating are incredibly beautiful and bespoke products, which is ideal for construction where clients want a unique result, and there is a growing demand for locally sourced materials,” says Sahajwalla. “We hope that builders will one day be able to dial up their local micro-factory operator, who can measure on the spot and make the product required.”
The dawn of the micro-factory will address a range of issues, such as delivering new employment prospects for operators, with the equipment being fairly simple to operate, recycling, and disposing of waste and making use of non-renewable resources. It also has far-reaching social implications for communities where waste picking is already a micro-economy, such as Professor Sahajwalla’s home country of India, as she explains:
“I remember growing up in Mumbai, where people would collect waste. There is already a wide economy where people are segregating waste and on-selling it for only one or two dollars a day, which breaks my heart. These communities could use micro-factories to create higher value products which would lead to better returns for their community and for the environment, thus empowering them.”
At an Australian level, micro-factories also have a potential to create jobs and social enterprises, with the ability to employ people from disadvantaged communities. After the first fixed-location factory rolls out next year, it is envisaged several more will roll-out in coming years, including the mobile micro-factories.
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