The scientist ‘mining’ mobile phones

Small factories promoted by a researcher in Australia could help to tackle the world’s growing e-waste problem by recovering precious metals in electronics.

World-changing ideas summit

Is your mobile phone getting on a bit or your computer slowing down? Perhaps you are thinking of swapping them for the latest models.

It might be worth considering this – 41.8 million tonnes of electronic devices were thrown on the scrapheap worldwide in 2014. That figure has almost certainly increased since.

The United Nations University describes e-waste as a significant and growing challenge. Yet this discarded electronic junk is also perhaps one of our most underused resources.

Discarded electronic junk is perhaps one of our most underused resources

E-waste contains huge quantities of valuable metals, ceramics and plastics that could be salvaged and recycled, although currently not enough of it is.

Veena Sahajwalla, a materials scientist at the University of New South Wales, believes there is a new way of solving this problem. She told BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit last month about her plans to build microfactories that can tease apart the tangle of materials in mobile phones, computers and other e-waste.

Her vision is for automated drones and robots to pick out components, put them into a small furnace and smelt them at specific temperatures to extract the metals one by one before they are sent off to manufacturers for reuse.

Speaking in the video above, Sahajwalla explains how the approach could have a huge impact – not only cutting the huge amount of electronic waste being dumped around the world, it could provide new sources of precious metals.

Read more: The rise of miniature ‘microfactories’

Watch BBC Click’s report on Veena Sahajwalla:

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