UK's First Commercial Refinery for Extracting Precious Metals from E-waste
The building of the UK's first commercial-scale refinery for extracting precious metals from e-waste has resumed following Covid-19 delays, and is expected to be operational within 12 months.
Mint Innovation, a New-Zealand based start-up, is delivering the facility, located in Cheshire. Mint has developed a new process for extracting metals from mixed waste, using bacteria and water-based solutions, and combining hydrometallurgy and biotechnology, rather than traditional methods which use harmful cyanide.
The new method involves grinding feedstocks into a fine, sand-like powder before inserting the material into a sealed device where a chemical leaching process can be used to remove base metals. The metals found in the remaining material are then only precious metals, so that electrolysis can occur to the remaining metal. Find out more about the process in this video.
"The plants are very agricultural, more like a small microbrewery", said Ollie Crush, chief scientific officer at Mint. "We offer the same yield as the big smelters, the same level of service and quicker. But unlike the smelters, we do not use cyanide and we use less energy, less CO2, less water, less waste."
However, Jason Love, professor of molecular inorganic chemistry at Edinburgh University, cautions that technical challenges must be addressed if the mining of precious metals from electronic waste is to be truly sustainable and environmentally neutral. “What Mint is doing seems very nice", he said, "but I don’t think it is ground-breaking. The real sticking point is how do you dissolve the metals. The company’s selling point is its use of microbes but that is only one aspect of its process. It is using acids too.”
Although Mint has not yet set a date for the plant to start operating, there are rumours that it will be up and running by August 2021, and a further plant in the south of England is being considered. Waste feedstocks will be sourced from the north of England.
Thanks to Brexit, the UK has an urgent need for the facility, as the country generates more e-waste than the EU average. Until now, UK recyclers have had to send printed circuit boards to developing countries which are ill-equipped to dispose of it in an environmentally and socially responsible way.
The announcement from Mint Innovation follows the UN's latest update to its global e-waste monitor, which reports a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste generated in 2019, an increase of 21% on 2014.
In the UK, MPs on the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) have resumed an inquiry into how current UK policy, infrastructure, economics and cultural norms can be changed to create a more circular economy for e-waste. The inquiry, which had been on hold amid the impact of Covid-19 on Parliament, has seen MPs questioning representatives from firms including Amazon and Dixons Carphone.
On the policy piece, the UK Government has agreed to adopt part of the EU's Circular Economy Package into national law ahead of Brexit. Additionally, the UK's own Resources and Waste Strategy details measures which are expected to be phased in over the next five years.
As a business, creating a more circular economy in the electronics industry is at the heart of what we do at Component Sense, and our overarching aim is to lead manufacturers towards zero electronic component waste. Read our Waste Manifesto to find out more.