BARC’s nuclear technology for scientific e-waste management in India

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India’s premier nuclear research institution, the state-run Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai, has developed various technologies for recycling of electronic waste (e-waste) and is currently making efforts to transfer this technology to the Indian e-waste processsing industry that for the major part continues to be in the hands of unorganised sector players.

At a webinar organised for industry earlier this month titled “BARC Technologies for processing of E-waste: Recovery of Rare Earths, Hazardous and Valuable Products”, BARC Director Ajit Kumar Mohanty said the majority of techniques currently adopted in India for the recovery and reprocessing of e-waste, which is a also a secondary source of rare earth metals, poses a big environmental hazard and, as such, there is an urgent need for the use of “proper technology” in this process.

“E-waste, which is also known as a secondary source of rare earths, poses a potential health and environmental hazard. Till now, e-waste in India has been processed by the unorganised sector, while recycling and recovery processes done by the unorganised sector can be a hazard”, Mohanty said. “BARC’s nuclear technology has been brought to use for e-waste recycling and we are transferring this technology to industry for this purpose”, he added.

E-waste typically includes discarded computer monitors, motherboards, mobile phones and chargers, compact discs, headphones, television sets, air conditioners and refrigerators. As per a United Nations report in 2019, close to 50 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste was generated globally in 2018. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor 2017, India generates around 2 MT of e-waste annually and ranks fifth among e-waste producing countries, after the US, China, Japan and Germany. In 2016-17, India treated only 0.036 MT of its e-waste. About 95 per cent of India’s e-waste is recycled in the informal sector and in an unscientific and hazardous manner.

In this connection, India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman K.N. Vyas described the context in which BARC had developed its reprocessing and extraction technology wherein India was at a disadvantage as regards its special metal and relevant mineral resources. “In India, the grade of uranium is very low and BARC had to struggle to extract uranium from the ore, as well as in the extraction of other metals”, Vyas said. “E-waste, however, is much more rewarding in extraction. It is also known as urban mining. This urban waste reprocessing yields a consortium, or complex, of metals and BARC has the technology to separate special metals and minerals from e-waste”, he added.

Noting the tremendous “economic value of urban mining”, the Indian government think-tank Niti Aayog’s member V.K. Saraswat said laws to manage e-waste have been in place in India since 2011, but lax environment policies in the past had resulted in huge amounts of e-waste from developed nations being dumped in India. Moreover, despite new rules that have come into place to safely process these hazardous materials, close to 80 percent of the country’s e-waste continues to be broken down, at huge health and environmental cost, by the unorganised sector.

Saraswat also noted, however, that with the e-waste management rules enacted in 2017, the government has introduced a new arrangement called the Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) which is the global best practice to ensure that producers take back expired products. The producers have to meet targets, which should be 20 per cent of the waste generated by their sales. This will increase by 10 per cent annually for the next five years. The law also says that the responsibility of producers is not confined to waste collection, but also to ensure that the waste reaches the authorised recycler and dismantler. “With the new policy on the responsibility of original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to take back end-of-life products, there has been a tremendous increase in collection of waste material”, he said.

E-waste is growing in India at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 30 percent. A leading industry chamber estimated that e-waste generation was 1.8 MT per annum in 2016 and would reach 5.2 MT per annum by 2020. India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has initiated an e-waste awareness programme along with industry associations to create awareness among the public about the hazards of e-waste recycling by the unorganised sector, and to educate them about alternate methods of disposing their e-waste.

“The BARC has the expertise to process the e-waste in an environmentally friendly manner as well as derive tremendous economic value out of urban mining. It should explore the possibility of transferring this technology to industry”, Saraswat said. “BARC is still in the domain of pilot projects, so it is necessary that they tie up with industry to scale up in this regard. There are lots of rare earth metals available from e-waste. Lithium extraction, for instance, is very important because India does not have much lithium resources”, he added.

Concluding his presentation, Saraswat noted that huge employment opportunities existed in the collection and segregation of waste, as well as in operation of e-waste plants. “A national policy on e-waste is the need of the hour, otherwise it will continue in a diffuse way as at present”, he said.

The Principle Scientific Advisor to the Indian government, K. VijayRaghavan, concurred with this point of view, noting that India has lagged behind in urban mining. “Our mechanisms to utilise the materials extracted from e-waste is limted. Atomic energy is a big user of these extracted materials and products, so it’s important for this sector to get into collaboration with industry”, he said.

A report by the New Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) says that e-waste typically consists of metals, plastics, cathode ray tubes, printed circuit boards, cables, among others. Valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold, and platinum could be recovered from e-wastes, if scientifically processed. The presence of toxic substances such as liquid crystal, lithium, mercury, nickel, polychlorinated biphenyls, selenium, arsenic, barium, brominated flame retardants, cadmium, chrome, cobalt, copper, and lead, makes it very hazardous, if e-waste is dismantled and processed in a crude manner with rudimentary techniques. The report also says e-waste is a rich source of metals such as gold, silver, and copper, which can be recovered and brought back into the production cycle.

At the webinar, BARC officials made a presentation of their expertise, acquired through work in areas such as processing uranium ore and spent fuel, of hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical techniques that can be used for reprocessing e-waste for extracting rare earth elements and valuable as well as hazardous substances.

According to BARC, its materials research is done covering all aspects from ore to component. “The focus of activities starts with the minerals discovered by Atomic Minerals Directorate. The minerals containing elements of interest to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), for example uranium, rare earth elements are taken up for developing beneficiation techniques/flow sheets to improve the metal value for its extraction. The process flow sheets to separate individual rare earth oxide from different resources (including from secondary sources, for example scrap/used products) are developed”, BARC said. Recovery of high purity cobalt from various wastes and scrap material has been recently demonstrated and “technologies transferred for productionization”, it added.

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