The days of e-waste are numbered.

French start-up Extracthive designs, tests metal extraction and recovery process for mining and recycling industries. Just over a year old, the company prides itself in its capacity to scale up processes from lab-scale to pilot lines at its own site, but also in identifying the key players that could interact in a circular economy.

Extracthive is hosted within the Institut de Chimie Séparative de Marcoule and has a 100m2 testing hall within the fences of the CEA centre of Marcoule. From mid-2017 onwards, it will also have access to the testing platform of the European Hydrometallurgical Institute, a 2000m2 facility with two separate piloting halls as well as dedicated analytic labs.

At the Smart Manufacturing Summit which took place in Paris – Orly last May, EETimes Europe met the start-up with some questions on e-waste.

Extracthive's Process Engineer Quentin Ricoux emphasised the importance of the company's piloting capacity. "We read a lot of research papers about new metal extraction processes, but often the researchers stop at the lab-level, which only offers an idealistic view of the process. In many cases, scaling up may just not make economic sense, or collateral effluents once negligible in the lab may crop up at the industrial scale and pose another waste issue".

"In some cases, we'll only have to make a cost simulation of the industrialisation process to discard some solutions and orient the company towards other types of treatments, maybe finding alternative ways to value its effluents that are more cost-effective than trying to extract what they thought was the most valuable element in the first place", Ricoux said.

"Often, it's a matter of finding the right waste pre-treatment to turn waste as a raw material that best matches the needs of another buyer" added Christophe Dondeyne, Extracthive's Executive Director. "In the case of e-waste, it may just be finding the optimum process to concentrate it to the right specifications for another player in the recycling chain" Dondeyne said.

"We have formed a joint venture with a Swiss company who used to concentrate e-waste for another company down the recycling chain. We've figured out a new hydrometallurgical process for them so they can extract some rare metals that are currently not recycled by their customers. Our pilot-scale project already generated a return on investment, so they are willing to industrialise the process. In the end, they'll keep selling the concentrate but will make additional profits by selling the extracted rare metal".

e-waste Figure 1: In all recycling steps, the key is the raw material, and e-waste recycling companies already pay different prices for populated boards.

"Nowadays, most e-waste recycling companies just crush discarded consumer electronics to pieces and burn the organic material, assuming it will be easier to apply chemistry and concentrate the metals out of that pre-treatment", continued Dondeyne, "but with its Liam smartphone recycling robot, Apple is sending a strong message to the industry."

"In fact, in the long term, such solutions could allow Apple and other large OEMs to keep a tab on their metal resources, remaining the full owner of the metal content of the devices they produce rather than having to pay for more", commented Dondeyne.

"You could imagine some companies leasing the precious metals to consumers rather than selling it" completed Ricoux, "in the future, consumers may pay less for their smartphones and tablets at the condition that they take them back to the shop at the devices' end of life. This is already starting to happen and it may be the future trend".

Large OEMs like Apple or Samsung would follow the footsteps of the electric vehicle industry, with EV manufacturers under so much pressure from Europe to design for recyclability that most prefer to adopt a leasing business model for the lithium-ion battery.

In such a circular economy, OEMs could see enough benefits in recovering themselves the raw materials they processed and assembled into electronic devices to no longer be held responsible for e-waste. Legislation and e-waste shaming surely helps, but intense competition for resources is certainly another driver for the largest players.

Extracthive sees here a window of business opportunities, not only working with OEMs but in many other industries.

Visit Extracthive at www.extracthive.com