Sunday Morning Disruptive Technology – Molecular Level Recycling
There is lots of this stuff all around the world, precious metals stored inside by resins and glues, valuable resources layered into composite materials locking away its continued usefulness with no way of getting them out, until now.
The Fraunhofer Institute are working on a new way of extracting precious materials from composite products using molecular sorting. Going where traditional recycling has not been before.
The Aim of Molecular Sorting
According to the Fraunhofer article, “An expert group appointed by the EU Commission has already classified 14 of the raw materials on which industry strongly depends as critical. These include, for example, cobalt, which is needed for lithium-iron batteries, and tantalum for mobile phones. According to forecasts, the demand for many of these raw materials will treble by 2030.”
“Research scientists are pursuing the aim of systematic recycling and production in a closed-loop materials flow. They are seeking to develop a production system requiring no input of new raw materials. Using secondary raw materials again and again and returning them in cascades to the production process saves natural resources.”
Now, that is awesome. Designing and implementing a system that requires no new raw materials, a system that uses secondary materials for ever. If we can get to that stage is might me that design for disassembly dies a death but it does mean that we can continue to innovate in the way products are made – continuing the drive to use composites to increase strength, reduce weight and reduce material use.
The environmental benefits
There are the obvious materials and resource benefits. The two mentioned in the article are being able to use more recycled glass in making new glass, achieving this through extracting the iron in glass at a molecular level. Or smarter wood recycling, extracting the chemicals used to treat the wood so that more woods can be recycled.
We could also unlock the value of the stuff we have shoved into landfill over the last 30 years. If we can extract precious metals at a molecular level and the demand (and therefore value) of these materials increases we could see the value equation of getting the stuff back out the ground flip dramatically.
But I think the greatest benefit of perfecting molecular sorting will be the end of the extremely life threatening and sickening process of children using open fires to burn circuit boards in developing countries so that the milligrams of metals can be sold for food.
Now that is disruptive.