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Printed Circuit Board Innovative Solution

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PCBIS (Printed Circuit Board Innovative Solution)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2020-02-29

In 2015 the number of mobile phones overcame the number of human beings on planet heart. This figure is representative of a way more complex scenario in which thousands of tons of electronic products are daily placed in the market, substituting the old ones. As a consequence, the amount of electronic waste is dramatically increasing. Due to very stringent environmental legislation in Europe, the industrial plants that can treat this kind of waste are limited. As a result, what can’t be treated in Europe is sent outside the borders to be treated in developing countries where the cost of the labor is reduced and environmental legislation is often poor. From an economic, social, environmental as well as thermodynamic point of view this export does not make any sense since, while the content of this waste is given away, new raw materials are imported in order to produce new electronics; nothing farther from the circular economy approach envisaged by the European Commission.
The specific target of the present PCBIS project is the waste printed circuit board (WPCB), that in most of the cases is treated with a pyrometallurgical approach. This approach makes use of high temperature in order to obtain the separation of metals and the volatilization of plastics; it is really effective in this task, but it has two major limitations: i. The investment costs are very highs; ii. The increasing environmental limits of the regulations force to continuous update of the plants.

In contrast to the conventional pyrometallurgical processes, electrochemical technologies here proposed do not require large scale in order to be economically sustainable. This allows for the development of a diffuse network of industrial sites all across the Europe, reducing the environmental cost of WPCBs delivery.
When compared to the pyrometallurgical approach, it is possible to see how an impressive reduction of both the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases emission depend on the adoption of such a process route.
Furthermore, most of the copper (which is PCBIS project most representative product) in the market is currently produced by mining activities. Nevertheless, this traditional approach is intrinsically affected by the characteristics of the feedstock used. In fact, it has to be considered that the average copper content of copper-oxide ores is only 0.5 % while the average content in WPCBs is 15 % (max.: 25%). Using e-waste as a primary source results in smaller plants, faster processes and increased efficiency.
The PCBIS project aims to increase the competitiveness of the sustainable hydrometallurgical management of WPCBs, making it a profitable business while mitigating illegal trades and the environmental impact of the metal production sector.
A comprehensive feasibility study was carried out in the framework of the present SME instrument phase 1. The scientific formulation of the base model was borrowed and evolved from the shrinking core model, traditionally used to study ores dissolution in pressurized oxidation operations. The model demonstrated to fit well data on copper granules dissolution over a wide range of pressures and temperatures.
These findings were implemented into a flowsheeting software simulating all the components involved in the PCBIS process. It was found that the composition of the WPCBs has a tremendous impact on the profitability of the plant, making the profit span one order of magnitude by switching from the worst reasonable case scenario to the best case scenario.
Notably, it was demonstrated that the single investment having the highest impact on the profit of the PCBIS process (+ 130%) is the combination with a molecular disintegration system (PiroMakTD Srl).
With the proposed combined PCBIS approach the use of external energy sources can fall down to 0.8 MWh/ton of copper produced, which is lower than the consumption of any technology available.
For the economic assessment, the PCBIS project was considered as a two sided business; on the one side there is the e-waste market, on the other side the metal market. It was shown how the size and the value of both sides is growing with time. The engine pushing both markets is the same: the exponential growth of the electronic products market.
This urgency is quite apparent to everyone, leading to an increased number of publications dealing with the recovery of metals from WPCBs. Nevertheless, the patentability of the PCBIS idea is still very high and Envin’s roadmap was changed accordingly by putting patent drafting in high-priority.
In the technical feasibility study, it was found that both the possibilities of producing and buying low quality granules are a profitable business which allows to engage a third firm to accomplish the mechanical pre-treatment, thus speeding-up the evolution of the project and reducing financial risks.
Finally, the other forms of risk were screened too. The industrial risks connected to the practical application of the idea were identified on the basis of an HAZOP analysis. Also, the environmental risk assessment was performed and discussed, with reference to the European and Italian normative apparatus and the outcome resulted as minimal.
The feasibility study will be used for the refinement of the growth strategy of Envin and the studies accomplished will be a useful tool to disseminate the idea with venture capitalists and credit institutions.
For the first time a large scale plant for the recovery of different pure metals according to market requirements was simulated using waste printed circuit board as feedstock. A mathematical model originally intended to describe the leaching of minerals was found to be adequate for metal dissolution description by fitting WPCBs experimental data.
The intense analytical process has led to the definition of the features of the first PCBIS plant producing copper with the lowest energy consumption ever reported.
Ideally, the plant will be built in Sicily, where the industrial fabric is almost absent, being the economy based on agriculture and tourism. Nevertheless, electronic devices are sold, used and disposed in the same amount of the rest of Europe and the lack of recycling sites capable to obtain new materials processing the waste, originates a huge trade of these goods.
Moving waste up to the treatment facilities adds an additional environmental impact to the already high carbon footprint of WPCBs treatment, today accomplished with conventional pyrometallurgical approaches.
Hence, the implementation of PCBIS project is expected to:
1. Positively impact depressed economies that need re-industrialization (such as Sicily).
Every PCBIS plant will directly hire 12 employees, while the indirect occupational fallout is expected to be even higher.
2. Increase European competitiveness in handling e-wastes.
PCBIS project will provide to Europe a methodology to produce copper and other base metals at 0.8 MWh/ton using e-waste.
3. Reduce the stress on natural resources and contribute to the adoption of the circular economy notion by a wider audience.
More than 1,250 tonnes of copper can be recycled from WPCBs in Europe every year by adopting Envin’s approach.
Coaching session: Mr. Hans-Juergen Pelloth CAM at Siemens (first from right), Envin's team (left)