Could artificial volcanos solve the e-waste recycling problem?

When he was 12 years old, Dirk van Meer became obsessed with a shiny black volcanic stone his father gave him. That little piece of obsidian sparked a deep interest in volcanoes and their role in the earth’s ecosystem. Now a university student, he has founded a team to build one himself — an actual volcano that could help bring Europe closer to a sustainable, resource-independent future.

Precious metals like cobalt and lithium are essential components of all modern electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops. Experts believe that at the current rate of mining these metals will be depleted in 35 years. Given how expensive it is to recycle precious metals, only about 20% are currently recovered from waste; the rest ends up in landfills in Asia or Africa. In addition, most precious metals are mined in China, creating a dependency with unwanted geopolitical side effects.

Van Meer’s team of students from the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands has partnered with steel multinationals Nyrstar and Tata Steel to develop a new melting technology that will make recycling precious metals not only a sustainable but also an economically viable venture. Their solution is best described as an artificial volcano, mimicking the way the earth has been recycling its waste for millions of years. The first recycling plant using their technology is scheduled to be built in The Netherlands by August 2020.

“Architects are inspired by beehive structures to design houses, so why wouldn’t we copy the way volcanoes work to recycle precious metals?” van Meer asked rhetorically when I spoke with him last week. In a volcano, waste streams are burnt at high temperatures that are brought back to the earth’s surface through lava streams. Van Meer’s team is building a reactor that can melt metals at the same high temperatures, resulting in “lava streams” with lots of useful material.

“Inside a volcano this process takes millions of years. We want to do it in three weeks,” he said.

Although van Meer is only 20, he has been studying the subject of e-waste recycling for more than four years and is considered an expert in the field. At 16 he wrote his high school profile paper on the subject, winning a regional award for it. “My high school didn’t really understand the subject matter,” he told me. “They wanted to give me a failing score at first.”

For a long time van Meer was laughed at wherever he went to present his idea. Until he was introduced to innovationSpace, a university project where students organize themselves in teams to tackle real life challenges provided by companies. “I immediately fell in love with the community,’ he said. “For the first time people didn’t raise their eyebrows when I started moonshooting.” At innovationSpace, he founded student team CORE to bring his artificial volcano to life. In two years the team grew from three to 30 members.

11 members of Team Core pose for a photo

Above: Part of Team CORE

The team’s reactor uses electrical energy to heat up the waste streams it wants to recycle to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, the ignition temperature of most energy rich waste streams. The unique feature of Team CORE’s melting technology is that the chemical ignition reaction further boosts the temperature to a maximum of 3,500 degrees, without needing additional energy. “At that heat level almost everything collapses into its base elements,” van Meer explained. The turbulence created by the ignition reaction also ensures that all the melted components mix, ending up in different layers that leave the reactor as lava streams through a tap at the bottom.

The technological challenge is calibrating the exact composition of the waste streams offered to the reactor. Van Meer explained: “The ignition reaction only takes place if the caloric value of the waste stream exceeds a certain threshold. We use a computer model that calculates the caloric values of all the waste streams the plant receives. Based on those values, it can determine the proper mix between energy-high and energy-low waste, so we know how much of each waste stream is needed to feed the reactor.”

Once the reactor has reached the necessary starting temperature, the chemical ignition reaction keeps the heat going. “It’s just like a normal campfire. You only have to put on a new log to keep the fire going. In our case, that log is a new waste stream,” said van Meer. Apart from precious metals, Team CORE also wants to process other previously “unrecyclable” waste streams, such as polluted soil, sludge, and chemical waste.

The team’s melting technology is called “elementary retraction” and was first invented by Dutch engineer Leo Nevels, who used it to win back silver from used photographic film in the mid 2000s. Although Nevels’ company went bankrupt in 2012, he never released the technology. “From his company we saw that it worked,” van Meer said. “But we basically had to reverse engineer the whole process.”

By adding or subtracting oxygen from the melting process, the students claim they are able to determine exactly which melting products (lava streams) their artificial volcano produces. Apart from precious metals and slag — a byproduct of the melting process often used as building material — they aim to produce a third stream consisting of obsidian. “The great thing about obsidian is that it can capture and store CO2,” said van Meer. ‘It could be used as a top layer for roads to capture car emissions.’

For all their optimistic predictions, Team CORE has not yet proven the technology on a scale as large as a power plant. Practical reality is often unruly, and van Meer admits there is always a risk of the technology coming up short. Nevertheless, the team has managed to convince three Dutch provinces, a major bank, and several companies to invest in their idea. The first €16 million ($17.63 million) to finance a recycling plant in the town of Delfzijl have already been secured. Big companies like Tata Steel and Norwegian zinc multinational Nyrstar are also on board. They will extract the precious metals from the metal streams produced by the reactor.

So what if the plant fails to deliver? Van Meer: “You can still use it as a normal metal smelter based on electrical energy, so it’s never a total waste of money or resources. Innovations always run the risk of failing, but that doesn’t mean good ideas shouldn’t be tried.”

Bert-Jan Woertman is the founder of Social Machines, a consultancy that develops innovation ecosystems and business clusters on campuses and science parks. He works as a part-time consultant for innovation Space at the Technical University of Eindhoven. Full disclosure: He has no vested interest in Team CORE.

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