Recyclable electronics: Just add hot water

Oct 29, 2012
Recycling this printed circuit board is as easy as making a cup of tea - simply add hot water, and the bonding material dissolves away leaving you with 90% of your components to re-use as you wish.

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), along with partners In2Tec Ltd (UK) and Gwent Electronic Materials Ltd, have developed a printed circuit board (PCB) whose components can be easily separated by immersion in hot water. The work was part of the ReUSE project, funded by the UK government's Technology Strategy Board.

The electronics industry has a waste problem - currently over 100 million electronic units are discarded annually in the UK alone, making it one of the fastest growing waste streams.

It was estimated in a DTI-funded report, that around 85% of all PCB scrap board waste goes to landfill. Around 70% of this being of non-metallic content with little opportunity for recycling. This amounts to around 1 million tonnes in the UK annually equivalent to 81 x HMS Belfasts.

The aim of the ReUSE (Reuseable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics) project was to increase the recyclability of electronic assemblies, in order to avoid an ever-growing volume of waste.

The project partners designed, developed and tested a series of unzippable polymeric layers which, while withstanding prolonged thermal cycling and damp heat stressing, allow the assemblies to be easily separated at end-of-life into their constituent parts, after immersion in hot water.

This revolutionary materials technology allows a staggering 90% of the original structure to be re-used. For comparison, less than 2% of traditional PCB material can be re-used.

The developed technology lends itself readily to rigid, flexible and , which will enable the to pursue new design philosophies - with the emphasis on using less materials and improving sustainability.

The ReUSE disassembly process is demonstrated in the video below:

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.


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Sorenos
5 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2012
So is it the water combined with heat or just the heat that softens the soldering? If the circuits start to loosen up when exposed to temperatures only around 70 degrees it means that there are quite a lot of things it can't be used for. The article does mention that it's "withstanding prolonged thermal cycling and damp heat stressing" but I'd like to know what the limits are before I start cheering.
gwrede
5 / 5 (3) Oct 29, 2012
So is it the water combined with heat or just the heat that softens the soldering?
Hard to tell, actually. I watched it in slow motion, and some of the printed circuit seemed to become partially loose. But the solder had to melt too, or the entire circuit would have come loose still attached to the components.

Now, what really is important here is, the concept of facilitating easy and orders of magnitude cheaper recycling than now. Consider, millions of mp3 players, Guitar Hero guitars (I saw one in the trash just today) and other consumer electronics, are dumped each day. None of them are even expected to withstand any temperature that's higher than a car interior on a summer's day.

For all these, dipping them in hot water and retrieving the individual components for recycling as-is, and the plastic parts and the PCB recyclable after grinding, would be very welcome.