Scientists say mining e-waste may be an economical option

Researchers say recovering metals such as copper and rare earths from LED lights may turn to be an economical option in the near future.(Image: Shutterstock.)

A team of researchers from Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC) say that recovering metals such as copper and rare earths from LED lights may turn to be an economical option.

Professor Maria Holuszko and PhD student Amit Kumar told The Province they have successfully recovered copper, silver and are certain they might also be able to extract some rare earths such as europium, cerium and lutetium from LEDs bulbs without using any chemicals.

There will be enough e-waste by 2020 to make mining metals from old electronics and LED bulbs an economical option in the future, the team argues.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of energy-efficient light-emitting diode bulbs and lamps, the researchers believe there will be enough of that kind of e-waste by 2020 to make extracting valuable metals from it an economically sustainable option.

So far, the team’s samples have proved to hold up to 65% recoverable copper — considerably more than processed ore — along with 4.5% zinc and 1,640 parts per million of silver.

“Eventually, we also hope to use this workflow to find a way to recover gold in significant amounts,” Professor Holuszko told The Province.

The projects follows similar endeavours announced in the past two years, including a new method for recovering gold from old gadgets such as mobile phones, TV’s and computers, developed by Scottish scientists and unveiled last year.

According to the researchers from the University of Edinburgh, who published their findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie, their extraction method not only doesn’t require the use of toxic chemicals, such as cyanide, but it is also more effective than current techniques.

A United Nations Environment Program report titled “Waste Crimes,” shows that up to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste — mainly computers and smartphones — are expected to be disposed this year. That’s up 20% from 2015, when about 41 million tonnes of that kind of gadgets were dumped, mostly into third world countries serving as global landfills.

Initiatives such as the ones in Canada and Scotland could help reduce the amount of e-waste while preventing related toxins from permeating soil and water supplies.