Readingtime: approx. 20 minutesWaste for FutureThe world produces 50 million tons of electrical waste every year. The introduction of 5G is set to cause disproportionate growth in this mountain of worthless devices. But what does worthless really mean here? Highly innovative recycling technologies are paving the way for a new approach to handling electronic waste – one that values it as a raw material. These technologies range from bacteria that fish for gold from scrapped cell phones, to sorting robots that learn on the job, and car batteries that function as stocks and shares.
Are you scrolling through this story? Great, welcome! But soon we’ll be saying farewell to your electronic assistants. In all likelihood, the notebook you’re using to read this article will no longer be with us in five years’ time. Even the mouse your hand may be resting on will probably be as dead as a dodo.
The same goes for the smartphone you are using to speed through the article. Yes, speed. We know you’re reading fast. All of us inhale information today with great haste because we feel we have less time than we used to. Our electronic companions are having a similar experience: Their lifetime has dramatically decreased in recent decades. My father – a trained engineer – impressed me as a child by bringing most of our family’s electronic devices back to life, from the toaster to the hair dryer, kitchen blender and moped. Even the old Miele dishwasher served us stoically for a good 30 years, having been dismantled and repaired several times. And it managed this despite the fact that two mysterious screws were left over following one bold attempt at complete disassembly. Nobody ever missed them.
This is unthinkable in the era of obsolescence, in which the disposal cycles of electronic products in particular are becoming ever shorter. Today, a dishwasher lasts an average of 12.4 years. A flat-screen TV breathes its last after just 4.4 years. A good 5 years is all a notebook can offer before it ends up in the trash. And almost a third of larger household appliances that are replaced today are still working when a new one is purchased.
From an environmental perspective, our current approach is madness. According to the German Environment Agency, around 836,907 tons of used electrical appliances were collected in Germany in 2017. Some 750,000 tons of these were used appliances from private households, amounting to a good nine kilos of electronic waste per citizen per year. The technological hunger of western society is driving electronic detritus into dumpsters at an ever faster rate. We’re discarding TVs with screens that suddenly seem too small, perfectly serviceable tablets with storage capacity that is no longer up to modern standards, and smartphones with cameras that simply have too few pixels.
If we continue to operate with such recklessness, experts predict we will generate 60 million tons of electronic waste per year by 2025. That’s equivalent to the weight of 290,000 Statues of Liberty. Electronic waste is becoming the fastest growing waste mountain in the world.
And the next technological quantum leap is just around the corner: “I don’t think people understand the magnitude of the transition from 4G to 5G,” says John Shegerian, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of electronic waste recycling giant ERI. Headquartered in California, it is the world’s largest recycler of electronic and IT waste. “This is bigger than the change from analog to digital.” A whole generation of electronic gadgets will suddenly no longer be up to date. Even though the new technology is “backward compatible” and compatible with 4G (LTE), all 3G smartphones will ultimately fall by the wayside. All major manufacturers plan to launch 5G models that will send their predecessors into retirement. Since the new Gigabit technology enables data to be sent from one device to another within a millisecond – 1000 times more data than the fastest LTE wireless standard – there is a need for more powerful computers, alternative storage solutions and lots of new hardware.
As unsustainable as it may be, the need to replace so many devices does at least open up new market opportunities for recycling – and, in the long term, for a more sustainable way of using resources. Major economic players are becoming aware that today’s trash is tomorrow’s raw material.
“Large companies and industry leaders are increasingly recognizing that recycling electronic waste is not only good for the environment but also good for business,” says ERI Executive Chairman John Shegerian. His company is the best example of this: When Shegerian founded his company in 2002, he had to explain the need for recycling to many customers. Today, tech giants such as Sony, Samsung and Staples are some of the key customers using ERI’s monstrous shredding and sorter systems. Shegerian speaks at international conventions and promotes a new approach to handling electronic waste that values it as useful. The recovery and recycling of raw materials from electronic devices is an issue that is now close to his heart.
Shegerian’s approach makes him part of a forward-looking movement that is drawing in more and more market participants and using innovative technologies to handle resources in a more sustainable way. This movement is often driven less by green motivations and more by a new awareness that a lack of sustainability represents a growing economic risk. As a nation of passionate garbage separators, Germans are not bad when it comes to recycling. “Levels of recycling and reuse are already very high,” confirms Axel Strobelt, an expert on product responsibility at the German Environment Agency. The quotas for recycling, and for preparation for reuse and recycling, as specified by the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), are “quite clearly” complied with, he says. European engineers are also very resourceful when it comes to the technologies used for recycling electronic waste. “There is a lot happening, especially in the field of battery recycling,” says Marcel Weil, Head of the “Research for Sustainable Energy Technologies” group at ITAS, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).
One place where you will find a lot happening is the town of Wendeburg in Lower Saxony, Germany. In a brightly lit factory hall, employees of the recently founded company Duesenfeld stand at an assembly line and disassemble battery packs received from electric vehicles down to the individual modules. The housings are recycled through conventional methods, and the discharged modules end up in a shredder where they are ground to a gray, dusty granulate in a vacuum or nitrogen atmosphere – with traces of copper, lithium, cobalt and aluminum. Most of the electrolyte solvents are then extracted using a patented condensation process. “We are the only provider able to recover solvents,” explains Prof. Tobias Elwert, Managing Director of Duesenfeld
Aluminum, iron and copper are filtered from the remaining shredder granulate via various sieves, magnets and eddy current separators. Everything that’s left over is a dust that is still rich in valuable materials: It contains graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt and lithium. The final and perhaps most innovative step takes place in the Duesenfeld laboratory. Graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt and lithium are extracted from the remaining granulate via a type of acid bath in a hydrometallurgical process. The lithium is so pure that it can be reused in a battery. Duesenfeld currently achieves a material recycling rate of 85 percent at the battery system level. Its aim is to achieve over 90 percent.
“It’s ambitious,” admits Elwert. “But it can be done.”As an engineer, he is convinced that pure, recycled lithium will be the new standard by 2025. “Right now, there is a shortage of recyclable batteries in Europe. The market is still too small.”
And common recycling processes are both energy-intensive and environmentally suspect. The conventional method of recycling lithium-ion batteries involves them being melted down and the metals cobalt, nickel and copper are heated over a lengthy reaction period. This method creates toxic gaseous fluorine compounds, which then have to be extracted from the exhaust gas via a complex process. The toxic by-products of the recycling process are stored as building materials in abandoned mine shafts. This conventional reprocessing procedure releases more CO2 than the initial battery production process.
The Duesenfeld recycling chain does not require any heating steps, which means it does not create any toxic by-products. “We use 70 percent less energy and produce 40 percent less CO2 than the conventional thermal processes,” says Elwert. He adds that up to three tons of CO2 per ton of recycled batteries are saved compared to the extraction of materials from primary sources.
The company currently processes 3,000 tons of batteries per year. For Elwert, this is only the beginning. “We want to be ready for when there are millions of electric cars in Europe.” By then, he hopes to have shredder systems in place in several more locations so that the flammable batteries can be “defused at the customer site” as Elwert describes it. The company is already in discussions with all major automotive manufacturers, and the first container for this purpose already exists. There will be more to follow – plus a large metallurgical treatment plant. “The market potential is huge and with greater capacity, recycling costs will also fall,” says Duesenfeld engineer Elwert, adding with a smile that: “The nice thing about recycling is that you have a time buffer.”
It’s important to use this time – ideally for developing future-proof innovations. Biotech company BRAIN based in Zwingenberg, southern Hesse, is doing just that. The company’s basement is home to a treasure stored in nitrogen-cooled tanks. It has been collected over the years from various habitats: hot springs, marine samples, salt lakes, termite guts, soils of all kinds and drill cores. It is one of the world’s largest industrial collections of microorganisms, with more than 53,000 different types. The bacteria are tiny, and they prefer cold conditions of minus 80 degrees. Many of them come from the bowels of the Earth, where they have survived for millions of years.
Some of them are now helping with electronics recycling. For example, the organism patented by BRAIN known as Pseudomonas metallosolvens BR11571 is worth its weight in gold. Sorting through the flour-like shredder dust of former electronic components such as cell phones, semiconductors and hard disks, the bacteria fish out microscopic gold particles that would otherwise simply end up in the trash. And it’s very environmentally friendly.
A scrap water liquor is added to 300-liter vats together with the heroic bacterium BR11571, which has been bred in fermentation tanks. The micro-organism binds to the gold particles at room temperature and dissolves them within 16-72 hours. The dissolved gold can then simply be separated. “We can recover about 90 percent of the gold this way,” explains BRAIN biochemist Esther Gabor. “It’s sustainable and can be done at a competitive price.”
From one ton of electronic waste, BRAIN’s gold catchers fish out up to 100 grams of pure gold; it can even extract up to 300 grams from pre-sorted printed circuit boards. BRAIN is currently looking for bacteria that bind well to the battery metals of lithium and cobalt. “Our goal is to eventually recycle precious metals entirely through bioprocessing,”explains Program Manager Gabor, who heads up technological development in the “Green & Urban Mining” division at BRAIN. The biotech company has recently started offering its bacterial recycling troops as a mobile task force: Using the company’s "BioXtractor", the electronic waste soup is mixed on-site in a container and the gold particles are released.
It is possible that a similar procedure could be implemented for precious metals such as platinum, silver or palladium. “We are also testing other waste streams, such as the ash from waste incinerators, and are in negotiations for an industrial pilot plant,” says Gabor. She sees green mining based on biotech as a game changer on the road to a circular economy. “Our raw materials are finite, and so are precious metals. We should stop treating them as waste.”
The German Environment Agency takes the same view. “Rare and critical metals from used electronic equipment, such as neodymium, indium or gallium, are playing an increasingly important role in electrical engineering,” says agency expert Axel Strobelt. “We must do even more to encourage recycling of these metals.” The German Environment Agency is concerned that loose batteries containing lithium, as well as old devices powered by lithium batteries, are still ending up in household waste or other incorrect disposal paths – eventually causing fires in the waste sorting and recycling facilities operated by waste disposal companies. “Increasing sales of battery-powered electronic equipment will exacerbate this problem,” says Strobelt.
A public relations campaign called “Plan-E” (e-schrott-entsorgen.org), recently launched by equipment manufacturers and “stiftung ear” (the national register for waste electric equipment) aims to educate consumers about how to handle and dispose of electronic devices. Its purpose is also to block illegal disposal routes. After all, around 1.3 million tons of electronic waste are still following an illegal route to China or African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, where the waste equipment is dismantled at a profit and the rest is mostly incinerated – at the expense of the environment and the health of the people living there.
With effect from 2019, the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) stipulates an increased collection rate of 65 percent for electronic waste. “Further efforts are needed to achieve this,” says Strobelt of the German Environment Agency. A recent invention from recycling specialist Tomra could at least increase the purity of waste streams. The Norwegian producer of recycling solutions (6000 plants in 80 countries) recently unveiled a sorting machine that sorts waste streams using sensors and artificial intelligence based on deep learning.
The first version of the intelligent technology called “GAIN” was trained to detect polyethylene (PE) silicone cartridges using thousands of images, and achieved a purity rate of 99 percent when two systems are used in sequence. “This technology can also be transferred to other applications such as electronic waste if objects are different than the rest of the stream in terms of shape and texture,” says Daniel Bender, Technical Manager for Deep Learning at Tomra in Germany.
Standardized silicone cartridges can obviously be sorted more easily than the highly diverse range of batteries used in the field of electromobility, where each automotive manufacturer installs different types and configurations. “This prevents us from closing the cycles for precious components such as lithium and cobalt – or in other words, from recycling them in full,” says Prof. Josef Stoll, Associated Partner at MHP, who works on the “Second Life of Batteries.” As a long-standing expert for waste management companies and partner in a battery factory, Stoll knows much more than most people about the battery market and recycling sector. He is disappointed by the lack of information and standards, and therefore the difficulty of disassembling batteries, which contain components that are mostly bonded and therefore not interchangeable.
“We need clear regulations and better modularity in this area,” says Stoll. “Then batteries could stay in use for longer.”Since every automotive manufacturer uses its own battery technology, the process of reusing the batteries is still a very demanding task.
It would be smarter to “structure the cell components during the cell development process in such a way that they are easily mechanically separable, for example by using a metal foil instead of a complex electrode material that is hard to recycle,” says KIT battery expert Marcel Weil. “This is possible from a technical perspective, but it is still only at the development stage.” Like Stoll, Weil is demanding uniform EU standards that are geared towards sustainability in order to make better use of the recycling potential offered by batteries. “Only then will we have a chance to achieve very high recycling rates and an overall low environmental impact.”
Is this really possible? Patrick Peter, a company founder based in Mainz, firmly believes it is. Through his digital platform Circunomics, Peter wants to accelerate the battery recycling via a data-driven process and open up trade in second-life batteries. Here’s the plan: From each battery type, a digital twin is created that provides information on its design, battery power, raw materials and possible secondary applications. Based on the anonymized data, a learning algorithm can forecast the remaining capacity – and with it, the value of the storage medium in its second life, such as emergency power storage in homes. The Circunomics database is the first open battery exchange, and will enable automotive manufacturers to resell their batteries to second-life customers or recyclers.
However, this concept requires a uniform and comparable data standard – a kind of battery passport. “This level of data transparency is mandatory in China, where the recycling rate for e-mobility batteries is more than 80 percent,” says Peter. Europe is still a long way from achieving this. But attitudes are changing. For example, Audi is working with recycling company Umicore to develop a closed cycle for recycling high-voltage batteries. The intention is for highly valuable components to be available from a raw materials bank. Circunomics CEO Peter hopes to start trading batteries next year. He estimates that the global market volume will be just under nine billion dollars by 2025. “The demand for battery storage capacity is currently rising by over 30 percent each year. This will make the purchase of second-life batteries a more and more interesting prospect,” predicts Peter. This is obviously dependent on high-voltage batteries being ready for their second life. The current focus is on overcoming functional challenges in their first life.
Aachen-based company PEM Motion specializes in e-mobility and was set up as a spin-off from Prof. Kampker’s Chair for Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM) at RWTH Aachen University. The company subjects car batteries from various manufacturers to a demanding endurance test in its Battery Abuse Center (BAC). If that sounds violent, then that’s because it is. Behind enormously heavy doors, the engineers drill nails into the batteries, simulate Siberian sub-zero temperatures and subject the batteries to shock or vibration. “Second-life batteries must also withstand these tests,” says Sarah Fluchs, Head of Remanufacturing at PEM Motion. “We would like to see recycling more closely integrated in the development process, as well as appropriate standards for battery design.”
This is still something of a pipe dream. But the number of initiatives is growing. “Some manufacturers are trying to consider sustainability more closely,” says KIT expert Marcel Weil. One of them is Swedish battery giant Northvolt. The company, run by a former Tesla manager, actually plans to devote its own resources to recycling from this year onwards. A large recycling plant in Skellefteå, the site of the battery cell factory, is set to recycle about 25,000 tons of battery cells annually. By 2030, the battery manufacturer wants to obtain half of the materials in new cells through its recycling program “Revolt.” In partnership with the University of Aachen, the battery experts at PEM are also researching procedures that allow battery components to be installed in a way that makes it possible to recycle them. Screws are one component that plays an important role in this regard. “If you use screws instead of glue, disassembly is much easier – which means that the refurbished value of a battery increases many times over,” says remanufacturing expert Fluchs.Good old screws. Sometimes we do need them after all.
As the mountains of waste grow and grow, we find ourselves faced by new challenges – especially when it comes to electronic waste, which is the fastest growing waste segment. But something is happening. Highly innovative recycling technologies – many of which come from Germany – are heralding a new appreciation of how raw materials are handled. Data-driven platforms will soon facilitate trade in recycled products and remanufacturing. The expansion of e-mobility is increasing the pressure to innovate – on recyclers as well as on manufacturers. In this context, designing for recycling provides a competitive advantage. Not just because of rising raw material prices, but also for reasons of sustainability, which will be the most important yardstick for companies in the future. Manufacturers who take recycling into account right from the product development stage can offer better selling points. This is particularly true for the high-voltage batteries used in electric cars. Sustainability-oriented standards allow recycling potential to be exploited more effectively – for the benefit of everyone involved and the environment.