Coventry University’s work with a recycling firm to develop a green method for extracting precious metals from electronic waste has been recognised for its ‘world-changing’ potential.
The university and IT recycling firm N2S created a new form of ‘bioleaching’, which cleanly recovers precious metals including gold from printed circuit boards and other electronic components using bacteria instead of harmful chemicals, in a three-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP).
This method has seen them win the ‘Changing the World’ award at the Innovate UK KTP Awards, which recognises teams who have delivered a societal, social or environmental impact with their projects.
Bioleaching uses microbes to extract metals from solids into a liquid solution without high energy consumption and avoiding the production of toxic waste in the environment.
These metals can then be used to make new circuit boards, but also in other devices as part of other supply chains, in a more eco-friendly and economic way.
The gold extraction process takes just a few days, compared to the lengthy and much more dangerous process involving strong toxic acid such as cyanide.
Further processes are now being developed to target other useful metals including critical raw materials, which are in even shorter supply than gold.
Sebastien Farnaud, Professor of Bio innovation at the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Life Sciences, led on the project.
He said: “Working alongside an SME like N2S is fantastic, because we tackle the problem by working first-hand with a business that knows what the issues are, and which methods will be economically viable. To work on something that not only has scientific merit, but also immediate real-world value, is incredibly rewarding.
“To win an award that acknowledges how ‘world-changing’ our research is has been the icing on the cake. We are looking forward to developing other novel sustainable, efficient, and cleaner methods of metal recovery, including from EV-batteries. This is just the beginning.”
Sebastien Farnaud, Professor of Bio innovation
Jack Gomarsall, Managing Director of N2S, added: “It’s wonderful to have been recognised for our research by the KTP awards and to be the pioneers of this new method. We couldn’t have done it without Coventry University.
“Bringing the commercial and the academic worlds together on this project has resulted in something truly ground-breaking.
“Previously, we and many other recycling companies in the UK had to export our precious metal for recycling to either the Far East or Europe for treatment, using fire refining or cyanide to recover gold. Now N2S Ltd has an environmentally friendly and economical method of recycling gold and precious metals within the UK utilising bacteria. We are also hopeful that this will extend to the recovery of rare earth metals very soon in the future.”
Find out more about the project.