Graphite nanomaterial powder for use in conductive coatings.

Graphite nanomaterial powder for use in conductive coatings.

A research project aimed at bringing a truly circular economy one step closer, has received a £1.2 million research grant from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC).

The three-year TReFCo (Thermal Recovery of Functional Coatings) project will start in April and investigate thermal recycling methods for functional coatings and develop wavelength sensitive adhesives which will ‘unglue’ when subject to certain types of radiation.

Dr Jenny Baker, who is leading the project, explained why the research is needed: “When devices such as computers, smart phones and batteries are sent for recycling, not all the materials are captured for use in new devices.

“Specialist coatings are often made with rare and expensive materials to enable our modern electronics to work. However, these coatings can cause problems when it comes to recycling and the materials are not always recovered but incinerated to produce ‘heat from waste’. This means that the expensive, highly engineered coating has been lost and its value not realised.”

“Adhesives often make our phones water-tight and ensure longer lifetimes of electronic products, however when it comes to recycling these products, the adhesives make it difficult to take the products apart, wavelength sensitive adhesives would make this more straightforward.” 

TReFCo aims to develop a low-cost method for removing these coatings so that they can be reused to make new devices. This will have multiple benefits; it will mean that valuable raw materials are kept within the supply chain, supporting the UK economy. It will also mean that the materials that they were coated on are cleaner prior to their recycling process ensuring a purer recycled product at a lower cost.

A lifecycle analysis will be undertaken which will ensure that researchers fully understand the environmental costs of producing materials and recycling them. This will identify any areas that are environmentally damaging in order that they can be avoided by material design or by changing the processing methods.

The project is a collaboration Swansea University partnered with the University of Birmingham, Keeling and Walker, Precision Varionic, Deregallera, Tata Steel, adphos Group, Elemental Inks & Chemicals, WRAP and Plug Life Consulting.

Dr Gavin Harper, from the University of Birmingham, said: “We are looking at conducting detailed techno-economic comparisons between the TReFCo technology and other recycling technologies that are available. We believe that the TReFCo process could offer many advantages through being a dry, low energy process that will be well suited to some recycling applications."

Dr Pete Curran, Head of Materials at Deregallera Ltd commented: “The key enabling technology required to facilitate mass recycling of battery cells is a low environmental impact process for recovery of the active electrode materials. Recycling end-of-life cells is itself paramount to minimizing the eq-CO2 emissions embodied in our products which is of critical importance to Deregallera and the end users of our battery technology.”

Dr Kai K.O. Bär, Managing Director of adphos Group added: “adphos group welcomes the opportunity to support this world leading team in the furtherment of the circular economy and the advancement of Low/No CO2 technologies using adphos’ advanced-NIR.”

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