Sydney microfactory upcycles e-waste into 3D printer filament

The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, is turning electronic waste into 3D printer filament.

In what the university is calling a world first, a microfactory for the sorting and recycling of electronic waste has been launched in Sydney.  

The project aims to demonstrate one way of turning the burden of electronic waste processing into an economic opportunity, using technology developed by the UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials (SMaRT).

One person’s trash is another person’s 3D printing filament

The UNSW microfactory requires only 50 square meters of space to operate. A series of small individual machines are used to perform each stage of the process, making the factory modular.

Waste materials fed into the factory covers many types of consumer electronic waste, such as mobile phones and laptops. Plastics in these devices can be broken down and melted into 3D printing filament. Valuable metals such as copper or tin can also be derived from melted down computer motherboards.

Robot operated

The recycling process begins with a module that breaks down devices by pulling them apart. Recyclable components are then identified by a robot arm, which picks and places the parts into bins.

Because the materials have differing boiling points, they are then able to be separated into their constituent elements by placing them in a furnace with precise temperature controls. At 240°C, for example, tin melts and copper remains solid. Setting the furnace to 240°C allows the microfactory to extract tin from components containing copper. 

A robot arm sorts e-waste for recycling. GIF via University of South Wales YouTube.
A robot arm sorts e-waste for recycling. GIF via University of South Wales YouTube.

Rethinking recycling

The UNSW has support from the Australian Research Council and has already partnered with a number of businesses such as the mining machinery manufacturer Moly-Cop, and e-waste recycler TES.  

Professor Veena Sahajwalla, SMaRT Director, explains that microfactories present a solution to the burning or burying of waste that can be reformed into useful materials. “We’re actually reevaluating the whole concept of recycling,” she comments, “We’re talking about the fourth R that we call reform. With China refusing to take imported waste, the rest of the world needs to be dealing with this rubbish domestically, and seeing this waste as a resource.”

“With a microfactory like this one, that environmental burden could actually be converted into a fantastic economic opportunity.”

Gabrielle Upton, New South Wales’ Minister for the Environment, adds that, “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.”

Other companies and organisations are creating 3D printing filaments with recycled plastics. Better Future Factory, a Netherlands design and engineering startup has been recycling empty yogurt pots into PLA filament for 3D printing. Deakin University and Plan International have also used plastic waste to 3D print water pipe parts in a remote region of the Solomon Islands.

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Featured image shows Gabrielle Upton (left), New South Wales’ Minister for the Environment and Professor Veena Sahajwalla (right) at the launch of the e-waste microfactory. Photo via Quentin Jones.