NSW Minister for the Environment Gabrielle Upton with Professor Veena Sahajwalla

Many people struggle with trying to be good environmental stewards – while not being hoarders at the same time. I’ve been guilty of holding on to things that I should throw away, just because I haven’t yet found a way to recycle them. Some things just can’t be recycled, unfortunately, or at least not easily, but thanks to the brilliance and creativity of people, those things are becoming fewer in number. One thing that has always been difficult to recycle is electronic waste, or e-waste, which is especially bad for the environment. But a program at the University of New South Wales is allowing people to turn their old laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices into valuable material – like 3D printer filament.

The university has opened a smart microfactory that has the potential to greatly reduce the piles of electronic waste that are gathering in landfills and polluting the soil and groundwater. It was launched today by New South Wales Minister for the Environment Gabrielle Upton.

“I am very pleased to launch the UNSW e-waste microfactory today, a NSW home-grown solution to the waste challenges facing communities all over the world,” she said. “It is exciting to see innovations such as this prototype microfactory and the potential they have to reduce waste and provide a boost to both the waste management and manufacturing industries in NSW.”

Professor Veena Sahajwalla

The microfactory was developed using research at UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre). According to the SMaRT Centre’s Director, Veena Sahajwalla, the microfactory is only the first in a series of microfactories under development and in testing at UNSW. The modular microfactories can operate on a site as small as 50 square meters and can be located anywhere that waste can be stockpiled.

The e-waste microfactory is composed of several modules that serve different functions. Discarded devices are placed into one module to break them down, while the next module may include a robot that identifies useful parts. Another module uses a small furnace which transforms these parts into valuable materials using a precisely controlled temperature process developed via extensive research. These materials include metal alloys and a range of micromaterials. The micromaterials can be used in industrial-grade ceramics while certain plastics from the devices can be put through another module that processes them into 3D printer filament. The metal alloys can be used to make components for manufacturing processes.

“Our e-waste microfactory and another under development for other consumer waste types offer a cost-effective solution to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our age, while delivering new job opportunities to our cities but importantly to our rural and regional areas, too,” said Sahajwalla. “Using our green manufacturing technologies, these microfactories can transform waste where it is stockpiled and created, enabling local businesses and communities to not only tackle local waste problems but to develop a commercial opportunity from the valuable materials that are created.”

Not only do the microfactories protect the environment from harm, they also provide economic benefit to local communities, she said.

“We have proven you can transform just about anything at the micro-level and transform waste streams into value-added products,” Sahajwalla continued. “For example, instead of looking at plastics as just a nuisance, we’ve shown scientifically that you can generate materials from that waste stream to create smart filaments for 3D printing. These microfactories can transform the manufacturing landscape, especially in remote locations where typically the logistics of having waste transported or processed are prohibitively expensive. This is especially beneficial for the island markets and the remote and regional regions of the country.”

UNSW developed the technology with the support of the Australian Research Council and has formed partnerships with several businesses and organizations. The next challenge is to commercialize and create incentives for industry to take up the technology.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Source: UNSW / Images: Quentin Jones]

 

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