Wanless and QUT win grant to tackle e-waste with robotics

The Federal Government has awarded Wanless and QUT Centre for Robotics a grant to develop a prototype for the disassembly of mobile phones. The aim of this initial project is to remove phone batteries, but the subsidy has far-reaching benefits in helping tackle the e-waste issues facing the world.

The Wanless and QUT Centre for Robotics project aims to automate the battery removal process using intelligent robots in local recycling plants. The prototype will pick and place a smartphone onto a disassembly fixture, identify the phone model to either pry open the case using heat or locate the groove of the phone cover to pry open the phone case, before removing the battery using a suction cup.

Robotics combating smartphones and e-waste

Smartphones contribute to 10% of global e-waste. Every smartphone contains precious metals including gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium. Salvaging these metals means the components from mobile phone waste can be transformed into valuable materials for reuse, meaning fewer environmental impacts from mining. To put it into context, 5 grams of gold per tonne of rock can be mined in a gold mine; nearly 200 grams of gold can be retrieved from a tonne of cell phones, not to mention 100 kilograms of copper and 3 kilograms of silver. Smartphones also contain a range of rare earth elements.

Why is e-waste a global burden?

By 2030, e-waste is expected to swell to a 74.7 million tonne burden on our planet, almost a doubling of the annual amount of new e-waste in just 16 years. This makes it the world’s fastest growing domestic waste stream, fuelled mainly by more people buying electronic products with shorter life cycles and fewer options for repair.

How robotics can help

A considerable proportion of e-waste, including mobile phones, gets exported or dumped in countries where poorly paid workers and even children are used to break apart these electronic devices. The manual disassembly of electronic devices exposes workers to toxic chemicals, repetitive stress and other physical injuries. By automating the process, Wanless and QUT hope to introduce a new, environmentally sustainable way to recycle mobile phones.