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Recovering valuable metals from industrial waste



The rising cost of metals is expected to drive uptake of an ecological metal-recovery system being developed by the EU-funded Ecometre project. It will benefit both surface-engineering and electronics companies.

Surface-engineering and related industrial sectors, such as aerospace, automotive, printed circuit board and metal finishing, produce waste streams that often contain high concentrations of metals. At present, these waste streams are mostly disposed of in landfill, resulting in the loss of costly metals, many of which are increasing in value as growing global demand puts increasing pressure on limited and finite supplies.

Using an innovative combination of existing technologies, such as electro-coagulation, material digestion and electro-winning, the Ecometre project is currently developing a system for the recovery of metals from primarily waste sludge. Part-funded by the EU CIP Eco-Innovation initiative, the project will also test the new system in a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) involved in metal finishing and printed circuit board production.

The project will initially focus on nickel, according to Dr Rod Kellner of UK project coordinator Env-Aqua Solutions. “Nickel perfectly demonstrates the potential financial and environmental benefits of the system,” he explains. “About 20 000 tonnes of nickel are used in surface-engineering sectors in Europe every year. Of this, an estimated 10% is lost during processing and ends up as waste. This equates to about 2 000 tonnes, which if recovered, could offset the extraction of an equivalent amount of virgin material.”

Main outputs of the project will be:

  • An industrial scale unit, matched to a typical metal finishing sector manufacturing plant;
  • Detailed trial data for nickel and techno-economic modelling for a range of other metals; and
  • A life-cycle assessment to determine environmental impacts.

The completed system will be able to take a wastewater stream, precipitate the heavy metals and selectively extract them for future use. The efficiency of extraction and the level of purity of the resulting product will be the main indicators of success.

An important factor in the potential uptake of the new system will be the price of metals, which is projected to continue to rise in line with increasing global demand. This provides an opportunity for significant cost savings in metal recovery from waste.

“There are an estimated 6 000 surface engineering and printed circuit board companies operating in Europe, with sales in excess of €10 billion,” says Dr Kellner, who believes that as many as 2 000 of these companies could adopt the new system within 10 to 15 years. “The market is driven by both cost and legislation and as both the cost of metals and the cost of disposal increase, so will the number of companies adopting the technology.”

More information

  • Ecometre project:

    Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP) Eco-Innovation initiative: