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

IDAHO FALLS – People trust electronics, and that trust will only grow in the years to come. As newer devices prompt us to get rid of old ones, we inadvertently become contributors to a major conundrum for our world: e-waste.

The need to properly recycle electronics is not new, but has become more of a concern due to the rapid growth of the industry. Technology developed by the Idaho National Laboratory 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 to remove metals from electronic devices, E-RECOV eliminates the costly and energy-intensive smelting process. Currently, there are no operating smelters directly processing e-waste in the United States, so the entire recycling effort must be outsourced to other nations. In contrast, the E-RECOV process can be done nationally, closing the loop for electronics recycling in the US.

When E-RECOV reached a key stage of maturity, we submitted a commercialization offer through the Small Business Innovation and Research, or SBIR, program,” said Ryan Bills, a technology commercialization manager at INL who supports the E-RECOV research team. RECOV. “The company that won the tender to commercialize E-RECOV was Quantum Ventura”.

Although 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 a real test and demonstration unit for E-RECOV,” said Tedd Lister, principal investigator for the project at INL. “In January 2022, our research team had the opportunity to observe and validate this unit.”

The demo unit seemed to be a success. After a week of observation, Lister said the team was satisfied that it was performing near optimally. They identified some possible adjustments, which Faraday has already completed.

Next, the system will be prepared or its configuration and operation will be extended.

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

“The SBIR project will be key to bringing this technology to a commercial application,” Bills said. “Without the SBIR awards, the construction of the E-RECOV demonstration unit would not have been possible.”

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

This expansion involves optimizing the size of the system, which for E-RECOV means increasing it to approximately four times its current size and then replicating it. The standard industrial-scale model will house several E-RECOV systems that will operate simultaneously. Based on its design, the technology is likely only scalable to about three or four times its current size to be appropriate for an industrial-scale installation.

E-RECOV shows great promise in making electronics recycling more feasible 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 as well as make it more sustainable,” Lister said. “Many people don’t even realize that they can recycle their electronic devices, and laws about 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 raise 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 one day help us achieve sustainable recycling of electronics for the first time.”

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