I remember one Saturday afternoon when I was a kid, my dad and I coiled up a bunch of copper wire we had salvaged from a demolition project he was working on, burned the plastic sheathing (insulation) off of it, and then took the copper wire over to the scrap metal recycling drop-off. We celebrated our informal recycling — a financial win — with malted milkshakes at a local burger place. While we made a little extra spending money, it turns out, this wasn’t a great idea. (Burning electrical wiring releases toxins.) That’s where Esource, a new invention by London Royal College of Art student Hal Watts, comes in.
Esource: Solving My Problem and a Much Bigger One
What ever happened to your first cell phone? Your first pager? (Remember that old thing?) You might be surprised to learn it was likely burned for scrap metal in a third-world country like Ghana. But burning electronics is dangerous and bad for the environment.
Electronics waste contributes to tens of millions of tons in waste each year, according to the United Nations. This E-Waste, as it’s called, contains as many as 60 different elements, including rare, precious metals like gold and copper along with dangerous ones like mercury and lead, not to mention dozens of other toxins that are released when insulating plastics are burned.
But unfortunately, one of the most common methods for extracting the rare metals from these devices — which include refrigerators, televisions, cell phones and computers, among others — involves burning them and then picking through the ashes to retrieve metals.
The Birth of Esource: Inspiration in the Rubble
Recycling precious metals from electronics is not a glamourous job, but in places like Accra, Ghana, it’s a common one. Watts visited the trash heaps in Accra, and he estimates some 40,000 people are reliant on electronics recycling for survival in that area.
After witnessing children burning electronics at these landfills, Watts vowed to work on finding a safer way for these folks to extract the precious metals from these electronics.
The Bicycle-Powered Esource: A Year-Long Project
After working on the project for a year, Watts developed a bicycle-powered copper wire shredder, which minces up cables into tiny bits, separating metal wire from its plastic sheathing.
To go with it, Watts also developed a bicycle-powered device that separates the heavy metal from the light plastic by running a gentle current of water over the shredded bits of wire and sheathing.
Together, the two components constitute Esource, a system for extracting metal wires from sheathing without burning.
Will Esource Work in Third-World Countries?
Unfortuntaely, Esource is not quite as efficient as burning. But Watts says it results in 98% pure metal when the Esource is used on copper wire. This means the copper can be sold for 20% more money.
Although it’s still a prototype, many are hoping the Esource, or a future generation of it, will land in markets where electronics recycling is a popular vocation.
Watts recently won a grant from the Wates Foundation to continue his research for six months. Watts was also in the running for the James Dyson Award, named in honor of the famous inventor. He didn’t make the final round of 15 finalists, but the nomination did help him get more attention for the project. Hopefully Esource will continue to be propelled forward by grants and financial support.
If so, then the Earth and folks all around the globe engaging in informal recycling might end up making extra money a little bit healthier.
Have you ever recycled precious metals to make extra cash? What do you think of the Esource invention? Share your thoughts below.