A Glimpse into the Future of Electronics Recycling

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Ronin 8’s technology uses sound energy to separate all the different materials in electronics waste. I spoke with founder, Peter Holgate to learn more about their work.

Our conversation ventured into his vision for the future of electronics – a world where phones upgrade themselves, and brands become the stewards of materials rather than the sellers of commodities.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Peter:

I’d been in business for 20 years and I’d done a whole lot of disruptive things. And then my mother died, and that had a huge impact on me.

I was very close to my mom. She’d written me a letter and the last question in the letter was that she’d met with Michael Musk, Elon Musk’s uncle, and Michael told her that Elon had built a rocket ship which flew into space and landed square on a platform in the Pacific Ocean.

And then she goes, “how’s your career coming along?”

That really got me thinking, but before I had a chance to deliver, she passed away.

What comes next

A lot of innovation is about going to the shopping aisles to see what we can put together. I reached out to my network and got a few of us together and we went shopping.

We figured there’s probably innovations in one area that aren’t being used in another.

And we came across a very cool piece of technology that was originally built by a mining company to literally shake the gold out of mine tailings using sound energy.

At the time, this technology was languishing in a tent.

It uses the physics of harmonic resonance. It takes a 13-foot-long bar of steel and uses electromagnets around it to create this very unique sound energy that’s very good at separating certain types of materials.

Most electronics have metals, polymers, plastics, and fiberglass. Their specific gravities are big enough to allow this technology to be incredibly effective at separating them.

It has a phenomenal energy conversion and it uses almost no energy.

A traditional blast furnace uses 100,000 amps or some similar number. To run an arc plasma furnace you’ve gotta create massive energy to get the temperature to do this.

Our technology is basically a massive tuning fork, that when you go “ping,” the tuning fork is humming and you just add a touch of energy, just to keep it at that rhythm and state, that harmonic state.

A little bit of tap water

Then we figured well, what if we put it in water, just tap water, and started flowing it ‘round a closed loop system?

We realized that if we started flowing materials through this, we could use it to separate metals and nonmetals.

If you try to do stuff with this material dry, you end up with a whole lot of problems. You end up with beryllium dust. You end up with lead in the air. You end up with microparticles in the air. And it’s really an inefficient, primitive way to do it.

But when you put it in water you can flow it around. You can contain it. We use a filter press to make sure we capture some of the finest particles, we squeeze it out, and we put it back in the front of the system. We just keep reusing the water, over and over.

Don’t smelt me

What we found is that there are a couple of areas where we can really add value.

One of them is printed circuit boards. Printed circuit boards contain bromides, chlorides, beryllium, and lead. They’re a hazardous waste product and currently they’re being sent to smelters.

When you put them in a smelter, you create two classes of particles.

You create dioxins, which are the same thing you find in DDT and Agent Orange. You create another particle called a furan. And these furan are tiny particles that scrubbers struggle to contain, that are highly carcinogenic, and just not a good idea.

You also destroy all the nonmetals. You destroy all the polymers, all the fiberglass, all the ceramics, everything just gets destroyed. And so we thought hmm, there’s gotta be a better way to deal with this where we don’t have to destroy it.

This is FR4 fiberglass, it’s the highest rated fiberglass in the circuit board. Why destroy it? Why not start to reuse it?

Solar panels and microchips

The entire solar panel industry, in my opinion is staring down at a legacy issue without the means to solve it.

I read in one of their industry journals that it’s a $20 billion problem that nobody has a viable solution for. The solar panels that were built 15 or 20 years ago are all aged out and need to be taken down. These work incredibly well in our sonic system.

There’s also the whole rise in tiny microchips that power the Internet of Things. You know the little microchip in your watch, in all of these places there are these little microelectronics. Once again, they suit our system really, really well.

And then there are other little unusual things we come across, like indium film that you find in LCDs, and some lithium batteries that come out of phones. It’s gotta be inert because you don’t want a fire starting from the lithium oxidizing. These suit our process well, where you need it to be in a closed loop environment.

It’s like the entire periodic table

We’ve found up to 24 different metals in most electronics. It’s like the entire periodic table. Even the guys who are recovering the primary metals, you know gold, copper, silver, platinum, palladium are ignoring most of the rarest elements, pentium, tungsten, the other popular minerals as well, so we started down the path of being able to recover all of them.

There’s one or two that we know we can’t separate because the chemistry doesn’t allow us to. Nickel requires vast quantities of energy to get it out. But we should be able to take out the rare earth elements as alloys that we can send for further refining.

I’m very excited for what it’s going to do to create the circular economy of all the metals. Not only a handful that people are currently using.

We want to be their circular economy

Really what we’re after is trying to establish partnerships with big OEMs.

We want the partnerships with the Dells, Apples, Intels, and Lenovos, we want to be their circular economy. We want to be their facilitator of the circular economy for the brand.

The way we see the future is that brands are realizing that they have an extended producer responsibility.

I would like to start building relationships with these big brands, and say, “hey, you’re doing great on the frontend. You’ve got phenomenally good looking devices, and these things do well, they’re powerful. You’ve got stores that are amazing, they’re like a temple, right. And yet on the backend of this, you haven’t been giving it enough attention.”

They’re great on the front end, but not so great on the backend.

Go to where the phone is going to be

The expression in hockey is “don’t go to where the puck is, go to where the puck is going to be.”

We’d like to put our plants right where this material is ending up. We’ve got to put these plants at a global level, dispersed around the globe.

Instead of having some kid melt away the plastic to get at the copper, you have a simple easy way to separate the two. I think that you’re gonna start seeing waste dropping off wherever you do it.

The local person is now incentivized by a free market, where the price is good, where you remove the incentives to treat someone’s backyard as your dumping zone.

We’ve already got the designs to have our technology modularized, so that it’s portable, so that as soon as it finishes its job in one place, you can pick it up and just take it to the next place and it can work over there.

The case for this is the mini mills that killed the big steel mills.

We think of it in a very similar approach. You’ve got these big smelters that handle a lot of this material right now, and we’d like to be the mobile mini mill, that goes ‘round and eliminates all of the big heavy infrastructure needed.

Bring in the Ronin 8 container here. Drop it off. Let it run. Move on. And then maybe we come back next month for a week. We have it mobile so that we can go where the problem is.

Innovating over the obstacles

If we can give designers more tools, I think we can unleash a whole host of innovations that already have the Cradle-to-Cradle piece baked in them.

I think a lot of us are caught in a “that’s not our business model” mindset, or an “engineering can’t be done” mindset.

But, if you have an innovation that says this phone screen now becomes a different material when you’re done with it, so that you have minimal downstepping in the quality of material, or no downstepping through the cycle, then you allow the designers of these phones the tools to design it for a Cradle-to-Cradle approach.

It’s like when the first iphone came out. When we see somebody doing something like this, we go “oh wow, it can be done.” Now everybody starts to clamour into this.

So if I was to say what our true role is, it’s to act as the example for other companies to say look “through innovating, through doing the right things, we can actually do this.”

So like my mother’s question “how’s your innovation coming along?”

Imagining a world without commodities

We want a world where we harness the global intellectual capital that’s out there, and we use it on the side of sustainable innovation.

It would be a world where we could think five steps ahead. If we have a certain material here, instead of downstepping it, maybe it could upstep again.

When something wears out, it can self repair itself and go back into a prior state. We want to understand how the periodic table, the chemistry flows into the design of all products.

We’re talking about electronics now, but electronics may upstep into a different product tomorrow, or downstep into a different product.

I foresee a world where when you’re done with your cell phone, instead of having Liam the Apple Robot take it apart, we have the cellphone self organize itself into a newer version of the same phone.

Let’s say we need to upgrade the capacitor here, which requires some tantalum from this part of the circuit board there. You have the tantalum migrate over, and you’ve now got an upgraded capacitor so that your phone is ready for the next three years, or four years, or five years. Maybe there’s glass that self repairs, so that you minimize the energy required in the circular economy.

In my future vision, I see the OEM brands as custodians of the circular economy, not as the sellers of gadgets.

They’re going to say look we’ve deployed a hundred million tons of gold or whatever the number is, and we are the stewards to make sure that it’s going ‘round and ‘round.

More and more I think that you’re not going to buy your phone, you’re probably going to lease it and give it back at the end.

The product arrives at your desk in a certain form. You use it, and when you’re done, you give it back to us and we will transform it into something better for you. So I see the brands being the stewards of a circular world, not the sellers of a commodity.

Learn more about how Ronin 8 and Peter Holgate are rethinking how we create value from our electronics.

Tell us what you think. What does a sustainable future for electronics look like to you? How do we reconcile the fast breakthroughs of Moore’s Law with the exotic waste that it produces?

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Up next: Sticking Our Heads in the Sand? We Shouldn't Have To

Peter Holgate conveys an air of confidence without seeming arrogant. His desire to achieve something “consequential” with his third startup drove him to found Ronin8, a company whose mission revolves around changing the world by changing e-waste processing. I met with Peter in his Vancouver, BC office recently to interview…

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