First, here is why advances in e-waste recycling technologies are more important now than ever. According to Wikipedia, e-waste (electronic waste) is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. Estimates are that there were 50 million tonnes of e-waste in 2018. This is almost 220x the weight of the Symphony of the Seas, one of the largest cruise ships in the world!
(I also used the Symphony of the Seas as my “standard weight” in another article, on recycling coffee waste.)
E-waste is not just a lot of weight. It is potentially very valuable as well because it contains materials that are essential to virtually all electronic devices, and that are very hard to find or make, particularly rare-earth metals.
Because of the amount and the potential value, e-waste recycling technologies are essential if we want to move toward a circular economy.
In order to get a first glimpse of the e-waste recycling technology landscape, I used Mergeflow to get a 360° view across venture investments, patents, scientific literature, as well as news and blogs.
By the way, in another article, we describe how you can use such a 360° view for prioritizing R&D topics. And in our article on data-supported tech maturity assessment, we describe a back-of-the-envelope method for how you can use the 360° view for estimating technology readiness levels.
Here is what I found:
(1) Venture capital investments in e-waste recycling tech
Probably not surprisingly, e-waste recycling is a technology field with only a few VC investments. Of course, one could make the case that the actual number of relevant VC investments might be a lot higher if one also considers adjacent fields. For example, companies that build general-purpose object recognition systems. These systems could be used to recognize parts during the device dismantling process, for instance. But I intentionally kept the focus narrow here. Here are two examples of VC-backed companies I found:
In 2019, Sierra Energy received $33M Series A from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Cox Investment Holdings, BNP Paribas, Twynam Investments, Formica Ventures, and The March Fund. Sierra Energy provides a new type of waste gasification technology. This technology produces syngas (for electric power generation), hydrogen, renewable diesel, and ammonia (for fertilizers). Their technology can handle e-waste as well.
Also in 2019, AMP Robotics got $16M Series A from Sequioa Capital, BV, Closed Loop Partners, Congruent Ventures, and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners. AMP Robotics makes software and robots that can be used for dismantling electronic devices. This includes small devices, such as old phones.
(2) E-waste recycling markets
Most markets and companies here are in the area of device refurbishing and IT asset deposition, including device makers and distributors such as Asus, Dell or Ingram Micro.
A different segment of the market deals with extracting materials from e-waste and then selling those materials. This segment includes Umicore and Aurubis.
In order to keep this article more compact, I decided to focus the rest of the analysis on this segment, technologies for the extraction of materials from e-waste. Specifically, I focused on rare-earth metals and lithium. Both rare-earth metals and lithium are essential raw materials for making semiconductors, electric motors, wind turbine generators, screens, etc.. At the same time, mining these materials can have serious impact on the environment. Furthermore, they are subject to, or may lead to, geopolitical conflicts. So these are three very good reasons for re-gaining rare earths from e-waste.
In terms of materials, the focus in recent patents seems to be lithium. For instance, the Sinochem Group and its affiliates holds several patents. Some of these patents are not available in open-access databases yet, so I can only list some of them here but not link to them:
- Method for resource recycling of metal elements from waste ternary power lithium battery
- Lithium battery core pack decomposition device
- Lithium battery current collector recovery unit
- Separation method and equipment of lithium cobalt oxides, metals and plastics in lithium ion batteries.
Here are some patents for rare earth extraction from e-waste:
- Paul Scherrer Institute: Method for individual rare earth metals recycling from fluorescent powder e-wastes
- Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry: Methods of rare earth metal recovery from electronic waste
- Dekonta: A method of selective regeneration of rare earth elements and/or toxic metals harmful to the environment from e-waste, particularly from cathode-ray tubes and CRT monitors
(4) Scientific publications
For analyzing scientific publications, I used Mergeflow’s network graph tool. This tool shows how publication authors and, in my case, various rare earths are connected. Mergeflow discovers the publication authors; I provided the list of rare earth elements I got from Wikipedia. They are analyzed as “connected” if they appear in one or more common contexts (e.g. research papers). I can then see, for example, a group of researchers centered around neodymium and other elements:
Without Mergeflow’s person detection analytics, it would have been very difficult and time-consuming for me to discover these researchers. But now that I have their names, I can find their web pages via any standard search engine, of course. Here they are:
- Marion Emmert (now at Merck)
- Sara Behdad (University of Florida)
- Benjamin Sprecher (Universiteit Leiden)
- Eric Schelter (University of Pennsylvania)
Next, I discovered something I really did not expect — rare earth extraction via Escherichia coli bacteria, for example:
Microbe encapsulation for selective rare-earth recovery from electronic waste leachates
This research out of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Idaho National Laboratory is topically related to this patent that Lawrence Livermore National Security filed for (I used Mergeflow’s “similar documents” tool to discover this):
Engineered microbes for rare earth element adsorption
(5) A technology that may help avoid generating e-waste in the first place
What if there were a technology that could help avoid generating so much e-waste in the first place? This is the goal of Prashant Sonar and his group at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), described in this article:
QUT turning coloured pigments into electronics to reduce e-waste
The idea is to use biodegradable, carbon-based organic materials to make optoelectronics devices.