Urban mining for metals flashes forward

Rice University chemist James Tour, left, and postdoctoral research associate Bing Deng prepare to “flash” electronic waste to recover its valuable metals for recycling. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Share this article

Flash Joule heating by Rice lab recovers precious metals from electronic waste in seconds

By Mike Williams

In what should be a win-win-win for the environment, a process developed at Rice University to extract valuable metals from electronic waste would also use up to 500 times less energy than current lab methods and produce a byproduct clean enough for agricultural land.

 

The flash Joule heating method introduced last year to produce graphene from carbon sources like waste food and plastic has been adapted to recover rhodium, palladium, gold and silver for reuse.

A report in Nature Communications by the Rice lab of chemist James Tour also shows highly toxic heavy metals including chromium, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead are removed from the flashed materials, leaving a byproduct with minimal metal content.

Instantly heating the waste to 3,400 Kelvin (5,660 degrees Fahrenheit) with a jolt of electricity vaporizes the precious metals, and the gases are vented away for separation, storage or disposal. Tour said that with more than 40 million tons of e-waste produced globally every year, there is plenty of potential for “urban mining.”

Metals settle at the bottom of a vial after being separated from other components in a crushed circuit board through flash Joule heating. The process developed at Rice could lead to “urban mining” for valuable metals from electronic waste. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

He noted an increasingly rapid turnover of personal devices like cell phones has driven the worldwide rise of electronic waste, with only about 20% of landfill waste currently being recycled. “Here, the largest growing source of waste becomes a treasure,” Tour said. “This will curtail the need to go all over the world to mine from ores in remote and dangerous places, stripping the Earth’s surface and using gobs of water resources. The treasure is in our dumpsters.”

“We found a way to get the precious metals back and turn e-waste into a sustainable resource,” he said. “The toxic metals can be removed to spare the environment.”

The lab found flashing e-waste requires some preparation. Guided by lead author and Rice postdoctoral research associate Bing Deng, the researchers powdered circuit boards they used to test the process and added halides, like Teflon or table salt, and a dash of carbon black to improve the recovery yield.

Once flashed, the process relies on “evaporative separation” of the metal vapors. The vapors are transported from the flash chamber under vacuum to another vessel, a cold trap, where they condense into their constituent metals. “The reclaimed metal mixtures in the trap can be further purified to individual metals by well-established refining methods,” Deng said.

Rice University chemist James Tour, left, and postdoctoral research associate Bing Deng prepare to “flash” electronic waste to recover its valuable metals for recycling. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“Since each flash takes less than a second, this is easy to do,” Tour said.The researchers reported that one flash Joule reaction reduced the concentration of lead in the remaining char to below 0.05 parts per million, the level deemed safe for agricultural soils. Levels of arsenic, mercury and chromium were all further reduced by increasing the number of flashes.

The scalable Rice process consumes about 939 kilowatt-hours per ton of material processed, 80 times less energy than commercial smelting furnaces and 500 times less than laboratory tube furnaces, according to the researchers. It also eliminates the lengthy purification required by smelting and leaching processes.

Co-authors of the paper are Rice alumnus Duy Xuan Luong, graduate students Zhe Wang and Emily McHugh and research scientist Carter Kittrell. Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-19-1-0296) and the Department of Energy (DE-FE0031794) supported the research.

Co-authors of the paper are Rice alumnus Duy Xuan Luong, graduate students Zhe Wang and Emily McHugh and research scientist Carter Kittrell. Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-19-1-0296) and the Department of Energy (DE-FE0031794) supported the research.

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs.

Re-published with permission from Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs.


Share this article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Don't miss the

NEWSLETTER

Exclusive editorial

Breaking News

Quality Company Coverage

Expert Writers

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Resource World Magazine will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.