Rockwell Automation is working with The Royal Mint to design, build and commission a facility to safely recover precious and valuable metals from electronic products. Both spoke to The Manufacturer magazine.
- E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world
- In the UK we throw away over 300,000 tonnes of electrical items each year
- More than 95 tonnes of precious metals could be recycled from unwanted electricals each year
- The Royal Mint is using patented chemistry to recover more than 99% of gold and other materials from electronic waste
- The new site will reduce the UK’s need to ship electronic waste overseas and ensure entire circuit boards are safely recycled
Waste electrical equipment (along with electronics and collectively known as e-waste) is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and the world, with less than 20% currently recycled worldwide.
What doesn’t currently end up in landfill is often exported to countries in Africa, such as the Agbogbloshie site in Ghana, the world’s largest e-waste dump, where the discarded circuit boards are incinerated to extract the precious metals – a highly dangerous and environmentally unfriendly process.
An estimated 99% of UK circuit boards currently leave the UK to be smelted at high temperatures. This current route creates thousands of ‘waste’ miles, large amounts of CO2 and uses vast amounts of energy.
In the UK we throw away over 300,000 tonnes of electrical items each year (with seven percent of the world’s gold estimated to be contained in e-waste) and hoard another 527 million items (it is also estimated that the average UK household contains approximately 20 unused electronic items). More than 95 tonnes of precious metals including gold, silver, and palladium – equivalent to £85m – could be recycled from unwanted electricals each year.
The Royal Mint is the home of precious metals and has been working with gold and silver for over a thousand years. Recognising an opportunity to address this global problem and make a difference in the world, while also sourcing gold sustainability, The Royal Mint announced a new factory, and a world-first, earlier this year. When fully operational later this year the 3,500m2 facility in South Wales is expected to process up to 90 tonnes of UK-sourced circuit boards per week.
The Royal Mint is using patented chemistry from Rockwell Automation to recover more than 99% of gold and other materials from electronic waste contained within the circuit boards of discarded laptops and mobile phones.
Leighton John, Director of Operations at The Royal Mint, commented: “The Royal Mint is currently safely retrieving and recycling gold and other precious metals from electronic waste at laboratory scale, utilising Canada-based Excir’s patented technology, with our scientists and engineers working to grow the innovative technology to mass production level.
“Sustainability is at the heart of The Royal Mint’s long-term strategy, as we aim to reduce reliance on mined precious metals and help solve growing environmental challenges.
“The Royal Mint’s investment in a world-first plant will help tackle the e-waste problem and instead of electronic waste leaving UK shores to be processed at high temperatures in smelters, will see precious metals recovered at room temperature at our site in South Wales.”
A powerful partnership
Building on a 15 year relationship with The Royal Mint, Rockwell Automation’s Lifecycle Services team is delivering a multi-million pound turnkey process design and PlantPAx distributed control system to help reduce the environmental impact of e-waste in the UK.
In the process, the circuit boards are fed via a conveyor system into a reactor and the resulting sludge then undergoes separation, sorting and filtering to deliver the reclaimed metals.
“The new chemistry selectively targets and extracts precious metals from circuit boards in seconds, offering a new and sustainable solution to the world’s fastest-growing waste stream,” Leighton added.
“Rockwell has played an incredibly supportive role to The Royal Mint, collaborating with the team to design the main gold extraction plant based on the patented chemistry. The chemical processing plant is at the core of the solution and a key part of the overall design that will provide the capability to extract gold from electronic waste.”
Leighton explained that the new site will allow this new, innovative technology to scale from the laboratory to mass production. When fully operational, the site is expected to produce hundreds of kilograms of gold per annum and allow The Royal Mint to lead the way in sustainable precious metals.
“This will provide a source of sustainable, high-quality gold for Royal Mint products, reducing our overall reliance on refiners. It’s an exciting time for us and the UK – it has huge potential to address a major environmental problem, while growing jobs and skills,” he added.
The new plant looks set to lead the way in tackling electronic waste, working at ambient temperatures and addressing the environmental impact of burning or smelting by creating a more environmentally friendly, cost-effective method of recovering gold. It will also reduce the UK’s need to ship electronic waste overseas and ensure the entire circuit board is safely recycled domestically.
Q&A with Phil Hadfield, UK Managing Director at Rockwell Automation
Can you give some background to Rockwell’s partnership with the Royal Mint?
We have a 15-year relationship with The Royal Mint and we are proud to be partnering with them as their business evolves, working on automating various plants to ensure efficient operations, supporting them with new ideas and ventures and helping them on a day-to-day basis through our on-site based support engineer.
In this latest project Rockwell Automation’s Lifecycle Services team is delivering a multi-million pound turnkey process design and PlantPAx distributed control system to help reduce the environmental impact of e-waste management in the UK, supporting The Royal Mint in meeting its broader sustainability goals.
Why is it important to recover valuable metals from electronic products?
Recycling electronics helps reduce the pollution that would be generated by extracting valuable and limited virgin resources to manufacture new products.
Electronic recycling also reduces the energy used in new product manufacturing. Not harvesting the material and, just as importantly, responsibly disposing of the residue, could lead to excessive carbon being released into the atmosphere. This solution fully supports the principles of the circular economy.
There are other ways to harvest these valuable resources, but they are dirty and energy usage heavy. The Royal Mint’s solution is really class leading – that is why we are so excited to be involved.
What technology is involved at the new site of The Royal Mint?
The system utilises a common automation platform for seamless integration between critical process areas and the balance of the plant, such as the discrete control (e.g. the scrubbers).
Because of our system architecture we have the best distributed control system (DCS) in the market to enable modular build (across all aspects of the plant). It connects process, discrete, power, information and safety control into one plant-wide infrastructure, increasing efficiencies and productivity across all layers of operations.
This eliminates disparate control systems, results in significant optimisation improvements (change management, alarm management, data logging etc.), and helps reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO).
Effectively, multiple organisations can build their parts of the plant and then the whole thing can be integrated really efficiently. This flexibility means there are lots of opportunities for us to work with people providing some of the latest modular technologies in the new green economy.
What does the future of this facility look like?
When fully scaled up the new purpose-built facility will ensure all e-waste processed on-site is handled in a controlled and regulated manner. Aligned with circular economy principles, the planned recovery of precious metals and other materials will help to preserve natural resources.
The wealth of knowledge and capability that Rockwell Automation has allows us to ensure that this facility is as efficient, viable and user-friendly as possible. We are proud to continue our working relationship with The Royal Mint to create a new source of high-quality precious metals for the business and help with the global challenge of electrical waste.
The golden touch
Rockwell Automation and The Royal Mint has also pioneered a method to safely remove all material from circuit boards, making it possible to recycle all the material. The resulting non-precious metal produced, such as copper, tin, steel and aluminium, will go to other companies to manufacture new products. In addition, the main chemical used in the process can also be recycled and reused.
“The plant has been designed with sustainability at the heart, extracting the highest level of useable materials, deploying highly energy efficient equipment processes,” Leighton added. “Excir’s technology works at ambient temperatures – addressing the environmental impact of burning or smelting by creating a more environmentally friendly, cost-effective method of recovering gold.
“The factory will be able to provide a significant volume of gold for use in our consumer and investment products. Additional sourcing will be required, but we look for recycled sources of metal wherever possible.”
As the new facility continues to recover gold from electronic waste, its uses will stretch beyond consumer and investment products and into jewellery production, in what has been termed the 886 collection.
Leighton added: “A move into luxury jewellery and homeware is a natural progression – aligning to our heritage, expertise and passion for British craftsmanship. It offers a manufacturing solution for British jewellery that is sustainable and supports the wider British jewellery manufacturing industry. There is currently no other organisation in the world offering jewellery items like this, making it completely unique to The Royal Mint.”
“As the home of precious metals, we are committed to a sustainable future across our operations, products and for customers. We are already taking action to reduce our reliance on mined materials through our investment in Excir’s technology and where we are not able to use recovered precious metals, we will choose recycled, minimal waste options. We want to champion a UK circular economy and will use British sourcing where possible throughout our supply chain.”
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