Researchers use gravity to separate resins from fiberglass in cellphone recycling

Researchers use gravity to separate resins from fiberglass in cellphone recycling

University of British Columbia researchers say fiberglass and resins account for the bulk of printed circuit boards.

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April 13, 2018
Edited by DeAnne Toto
Electronics North America

Maria Holuszko, a mining and engineering professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia, has developed a process to separate cellphone fiberglass and resins using gravity and other “simple” physical separation techniques. Holuszko worked with PhD student Amit Kumar on the process, according to a news release issued by the university.

“Discarded cellphones are a huge, growing source of electronic waste, with close to 2 billion new cellphones sold every year around the world and people replacing their phones every few years,” Holuszko says. “The challenge is to break down models that can no longer be reused into useful materials—in a way that doesn't harm the environment.”

© University of British Columbia
From left: Amit Humar and Maria Holuszko have developed a process to separate fiberglass from resins in printed circuit boards. 
While most electronics recyclers recover metals from electronic scrap for recycling, fiberglass and resins, which account for the bulk of cellphones’ printed circuit boards, can be discarded because they are less valuable and more difficult to process, the news release notes.

 

“The key here is gravity separation, which efficiently separates the fiberglass from the resin by using the differences in their densities,” Kumar says. “The separated fiberglass can then be used as a raw material for construction and insulation. In the future, if we can find a way to improve the quality of the recycled fiberglass, it may even be suitable for manufacturing new circuit boards.”

The researchers are looking into developing a large-scale commercial model of the process, in partnership with Ronin8, a Richmond, British Columbia-based recycling company that separates the different plastics, fibers and metals in electronic scrap streams.

“Ronin8 has developed an innovative e-waste process for electronic waste that aims to address the intrinsic faults in traditional e-waste processes today,” says Travis Janke, director of engineering at Ronin8. “Our vision is to achieve a zero-waste end-of-life solution for electronics, and our work with Maria and Amit at UBC has moved us closer to this reality.”

The researchers say their task has taken on a new urgency in light of China’s waste import ban, which took effect Jan. 1, 2018.

“We need a better way to manage our electronic hardware recycling, and a cost-effective, environmentally responsible method of mining e-waste for valuable materials would be a good step in that direction,” Holuszko says.

View a video about the research at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FarsLBeDTW0&feature=youtu.be