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New Research Center Launched to Develop Innovative E-Waste Recycling Technologies and Solutions

An innovative center, called the NTU Singapore-CEA Alliance for Research in Circular Economy (NTU SCARCE), will pay attention to four major research thrusts that will look into the recovery and recycling of materials from usual e-waste like discarded printed circuit boards and lithium-ion batteries.

Inauguration (Image credit: CEA)

As the first research center of CEA outside of France, the NTU SCARCE will look at developing sophisticated e-waste separation and extraction methods that are more energy efficient and also eco-friendly when compared to traditional techniques.

This NTU-CEA joint research center is being supported by Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) under the agency’s Closing the Waste Loop (CTWL) Research and Development (R&D) Initiative. In this collaboration, a total of S$20 million is being contributed by all the three organizations. NTU SCARCE is the first-ever project to get funding from the R&D program “Closing The Waste Loop” of the Singapore National Environmental Agency.

Dr Amy Khor, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, has recently unveiled the research center, which will support the country’s goal to becoming a Zero Waste nation by exploring means to lower the consumption of materials, and recycling and reusing them to give them a new lease of life.

The joint center is consistently striving to promote sustainable industrial processes, and its key objectives also align with NTU’s focus on sustainability studies.

This joint research centre will grapple with one of the most increasingly important issues in recycling as the world continues to produce more electronic devices and e-waste. It will study new methods and technologies to process and recover precious materials from e-waste, while minimising environmental impact. This is also one of the core tenets of the NTU Smart Campus initiative, which aims to develop technologically advanced solutions for a sustainable future.

Subra Suresh, President Professor, NTU Singapore

The CEA has been collaborating with NTU since 2012 on materials science and the creation of the joint NTU-CEA laboratory, our first one to be implemented abroad, is a new decisive step in that way. More than 15 CEA researchers will spend extended periods in Singapore to strengthen this collaboration. This will make the most of CEA’s world-renowned expertise and technologies in materials recycling and waste management. In collaboration with NTU, we will examine solutions for recycling batteries, solar panels and for the treatment of electronic waste, where our R&D and innovation will be translated into industrial processes for getting high value-added products.

Dr Laurence Piketty, Deputy Chairman, CEA

CTWL fosters collaborations among private sector partners, research institutes, and higher learning institutes in order to come up with novel solutions and technologies to deal with the difficulties presented by a scarcity of resources, growing waste generation, and land constraints for waste management.

NEA is making steady and heavy investments in R&D initiatives to address our waste management challenges, and to better position Singapore for a more resource-efficient and sustainable future. A key thrust of NEA’s technology masterplan is waste-to-resource R&D initiatives, which is aligned to our circular economy approach to move Singapore closer to its vision of a Zero Waste nation. We are delighted with this joint partnership with NTU Singapore and CEA France, in the form of SCARCE. The focus on e-waste is apt given the pervasiveness of digital technologies, and addresses both important resource recovery and public health needs.

Mr Tan Meng Dui, Chief Executive Officer, National Environment Agency

Heavy metals present in e-waste can be both useful and hazardous, and hence these should be managed and discarded properly. Moreover, when e-waste is properly recycled, it would not only conserve resources from the materials but would also protect the environment and human health.

Four research thrusts in the NTU-CEA research center will look into recovering and recycling materials from the following products:

  • Silicon-based solar panels
  • Lithium-ion batteries
  • Detoxifying plastic parts in e-waste
  • Printed circuit boards from discarded e-waste

For instance, the joint laboratory will explore ways to devise environmentally friendly techniques for recycling and extracting around 75% of metals like manganese, lithium, nickel, and cobalt. It is possible to re-use these materials to create new lithium-ion batteries.

One among the many solutions involves the use of “green chemistry”—an approach that concentrates on applying earth-friendly products and chemical processes that brings down the usage and production of hazardous substances.

In Singapore, about 60,000 tonnes or 11kg of e-waste per person are generated each year. This lab will support the nation’s mission to find new ways to recycle e-waste in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner while at the same time, extract materials that can be re-used again.

Madhavi Srinivasan, Professor and Co-Director, NTU Singapore.

In addition, printed circuit boards are equally vital e-waste products. These products are etched or thin copper-plated circuitry boards, in which many electronic components, including built-in chips, are integrated. Printed circuit boards usually include metals like aluminum, copper, silver, gold, and also valuable ceramics and organics, which are usually lost at the time of incineration.

Existing industrial recycling processes are known to release toxic pollutants and/or liquid waste that need expensive treatment processes so that they can be securely discharged into the environment.

Innovative techniques will be developed by researchers in order to isolate and recover as much ceramics and organics as possible for a wide range of applications.

Closing the materials loop is a key challenge to enabling a sustainable environment. Electronic waste recycling concentrates many of the issues that must be solved and is the perfect testbed towards that aim. Together with my colleagues in CEA, we are thrilled by this opportunity to work in synergy with our Singapore partners.

Dr Jean-Christophe P. Gabriel, Co-Director¸ NTU Singapore.

In addition, the laboratory will apply the same concepts of recovering valuable materials and decreasing environmental harm to locate sustainable solutions to process harmful plastic materials and solar panel e-waste.

Other methods will also be explored by the researchers to obtain metals and silicon from solar panels, which could help in reducing the costs associated with producing new panels. A systematic method will also be developed by the team to carefully sort, clean, and recycle harmful plastic materials from e-waste.

CTWL is supported by the National Research Foundation and the Ministry of National Development as part of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan (RIE2020), with funding of S$45 million under the Urban Solutions and Sustainability (USS) domain.

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