Recycling old electronics with corn waste
June 5, 2018

One of the things that environmentally-conscious workplaces recycle is old electronics. One of the recurring facts of life in the modern office is that computer systems need upgrading periodically. Old computers, fax machines, and phone systems are often sent to recycling facilities to extract the valuable metals contained within for reuse. But how does this process take place?

One method of extracting rare earth materials from discarded electronics involves using corn stover, the stalks, leaves, and cobs that are left in the fields after the harvest. According to a site called Feedstuffs, the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory has developed a biochemical process using the waste products of corn to recover valuable materials from left-over computers and cell phones.

Typically, leaching the valuable parts from discarded electronics involves sulfuric acid, which presents an environmental hazard. Heat and pressure are also involved in the process, which adds to the cost of recycling electronic waste.

The Ames Laboratory has researched using naturally-derived solvents for the process of recovering useful materials from old computers, phones, and so on. After experimenting with material such as potato peels and apple processing water, the researchers hit upon corn stover to facilitate the growth of a bacteria called Gluconobacter, which produces a naturally occurring acid. The bacteria need sugars derived from organic products to grow and thrive while they are excreting what is needed to recycle old electronics.

The resulting process is a win-win on several levels. A new method to recycle old computers, phones, and other old electronics has been developed that is competitive in cost to standard methods and is also more environmentally benign. Corn farmers now have a market for a part of their crops that is typically not used after the harvest. Finally, a new source of rare earth metals, which are crucial for modern technological devices, has been developed.

June 5, 2018
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