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What to do with your old phone? INL’s E-RECOV might have the answer

Science & Technology

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IDAHO FALLS – People rely on electronics, and that reliance will only grow in the coming years. As the newest gadgets prompt us to dispose of our old ones, we unwittingly become contributors to a major conundrum for our world – electronic litter.

The need to properly recycle electronics is not new, but it has become more of a concern due to the industry’s rapid growth. The Idaho National Laboratory developed technology known as E-RECOV is working to combat this problem. It was developed with funding from the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute.

Using an electrochemical process for removing metals from electronic devices, E-RECOV eliminates the highly energy-intensive and expensive smelting process. Currently, there are no operational smelters that directly process electronic waste in the United States, so the entire recycling effort must be outsourced to other nations. In contrast, the E-RECOV process can be performed domestically, closing the loop for electronics recycling in the U.S.

When E-RECOV reached a key stage of maturity, we put out a bid for commercialization through the Small Business Innovation and Research, or SBIR, program,” said Ryan Bills, the technology commercialization manager at INL supporting the E-RECOVresearch team. “The company that won the bid to commercialize E-RECOV was Quantum Ventura.”

Even though Quantum Ventura led the SBIR bid, Bills and the E-RECOV research team said they needed technical support. That’s where Faraday Technologies came into the picture.

“Faraday built an actual test and demonstration unit for E-RECOV,” said Tedd Lister, the project’s principal researcher at INL. “In January 2022, our research team had the opportunity to observe and validate this unit.”

The demonstration unit appeared to be a success. After a week of observation, Lister said the team was satisfied that it was running at close to optimal. They identified a few possible tweaks, which Faraday has already completed.

The system will next be prepared or scale-up set up and operation.

E Recov
A snapshot of the E-RECOV system at the Faraday Technologies facility. | INL

“The SBIRproject will be key in moving this technology to commercial application,” Bills said. “Without the SBIR awards, building the E-RECOV demonstration unit would not have been possible.”

This scale-up process will help prepare the system for commercial operation. The lab-level system processes seven kilograms of metal per day, whereas a commercial system will need to be able to handle at least 1,000 kilograms each day.

This scale-up involves optimizing the system’s size, which for E-RECOV means growing it to about four times its current size, then replicating it. The standard industrial-scale model will host several E-RECOV systems operating concurrently. Based on its design, the technology could likely only be scaled up to about three or four times its current size to be appropriate for an industrial-scale facility.

E-RECOV shows great promise for making electronics recycling more viable and sustainable. However, the research team knows that the industry still has a long way to go.

“We need to make electronics recycling more available in addition to making it more sustainable,” Lister said. “A lot of people don’t even realize they can recycle their electronic devices, and laws around improper disposal of these devices are left up to the states. To make sure we can successfully execute the potential of E-RECOV, we also need to increase awareness of electronics recycling.”

Still, this execution could never happen without the right tool: E-RECOV. As Bills said, “DOE’s SBIR program has enabled a path forward for this technology, which may someday help us realize sustainable electronics recycling for the very first time.”