Researchers are developing ways to recycle electronics using bacteria

E-waste
Research news

Wednesday 22 January 2020

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Researchers from Coventry University are helping to shake up the electronic waste (e-waste) industry alongside N2S, the UK’s market leader in IT lifecycle services, with a new method of recycling electronics - using bacteria to recover precious metals.

The bacteria eats away at circuit boards before releasing the metals in an oxidised solution.

The technique, called bioleaching, is a natural process which has been used in the mining industry for years to extract metals from ores, however this is the first industrial application to solving the e-waste problem.

Over 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated each year. Current recycling methods for electronics can be harmful to the environment and human health. Dismantled circuit boards are often exported to countries, predominantly in Asia, where the metals are recovered mainly through incineration. As well as poisoning the water supply and food chain, the workers carrying out the process are exposed to toxic components and fumes. Using bioleaching technology is a natural, economical and safe alternative, which can address major environmental and economic issues.

N2S, the UK’s market leader in IT lifecycle services, has partnered with Coventry University through the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme, funded by InnovateUK. N2S are using the expertise of Associate Professor Sebastien Farnaud and Professor Derek Renshaw from the Research Centre for Sport, Exercise and Life Sciences (CSELS) to develop the technique into real industry practice. Bioleaching as a sustainable solution for recycling e-waste was also supported and presented as a major alternative for IT recycling at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) conference ‘Helping Businesses Achieve Sustainable Outcomes’.

It is vital that the recycling of electronics becomes more sustainable and bioleaching is a real solution to this.

There is now huge pressure on companies and recyclers to be mindful of environmental issues and emphasise their green credentials, whilst maintaining profitability and data security.

Electronic waste can be a major secondary source of precious and rare metals, however current recycling methods don’t return full value and also raise safety concerns. The use of bioleaching offers a reduction of environmental and human health impacts. The technology can also deliver savings and conservation of limited resources as more of the precious metals are recovered.

Dr Sebastien Farnaud, Associate Professor in Biomedical Science at Coventry University

The last piece of the jigsaw in my 52 year long career in IT recycling is the refining of precious metals from Printed Circuit Boards and bioleaching really is the answer.

Jack Gomarsall, Founder and Managing Director at N2S

We are proud to work with Coventry University on our journey for the bioleaching of precious and rare metals from Printed Circuits within IT equipment. Being able to sustainably recover all of the precious metals from our clients equipment sets us as market leaders in the quest for a circular economy and supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This is truly a team effort and an industry game changer, we have to thank the research team for their continued and valued support in further research and advice.

Andy Gomarsall MBE, Director at N2S