The University of NSW (UNSW) has developed the world’s first ‘microfactories’ that can transform all of the recycled containers and materials put out in council bins, along with other waste streams such as e-waste, and convert them into reformed materials including metal alloys, plastic filament for 3D printing, and glass panels for building products.

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Veena Sahajwalla at the world’s first microfactory

Using technology developed following extensive scientific research at UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre), the first launched microfactory was the e-waste microfactory.

In launching the micro-factory at the SMaRT Centre laboratories, NSW Minister for the Environment Gabrielle Upton said it was exciting to see new technological innovations that could transform waste management and recycling.

SMaRT Centre Director, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, said the e-waste microfactory was the first of a series of microfactories under development and in testing at UNSW that can also turn many types of consumer waste streams such as glass, plastic and timber into commercial materials and products.

“Our microfactories offer a cost-effective solution to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our age, while delivering new job opportunities to our cities but importantly to our rural and regional areas, too,” Ms Sahajwalla said.

“Using our green manufacturing technologies, these microfactories can transform waste where it is stockpiled and created, enabling local businesses and communities to not only tackle local waste problems but to develop a commercial opportunity from the valuable materials that are created.

Ms Sahajwalla said microfactories presented a solution to burning and burying waste items that contain materials which can be transformed into value-added substances and products to meet existing and new industry and consumer demands.

“We have proven you can transform just about anything at the micro-level and transform waste streams into value-added products. For example, instead of looking at plastics as just a nuisance, we’ve shown scientifically that you can generate materials from that waste stream to create smart filaments for 3D printing,” she said.

According to Ms Sahajwalla, these microfactories can transform the manufacturing landscape, especially in remote locations where typically the logistics of having waste transported or processed are prohibitively expensive. This is especially beneficial for the island markets and the remote and regional regions of the country.

UNSW has developed the technology with support from the Australian Research Council and is now in partnership with a number of businesses and organisations including e-waste recycler TES, mining manufacturer Moly-Cop, and Dresden which makes spectacles.

How it works

The microfactories consist of a series of small machines and devices that use patented technology to turn discarded products and containers into new and reusable materials. It involves a number of small machines for this process, which fit into a small room.

The discarded devices and items are first placed into a module to break them down. The next module may involve a special robot to extract useful parts.

Another module uses a small furnace to separate the metallic parts into valuable materials, while another one reforms the plastic into a high-grade filament suitable for 3D printing. A microfactory can involve one or a series of modular machines and be easily transported or relocated to where a stockpile or suitable site exists.

Costings show an investment in a microfactory can pay off in less than three years. Glass stockpiles alone amount to more than one million tonnes per year nationally. In total, Australia produces nearly 65 million tonnes of industrial and domestic solid waste each year.

Ms Sahajwalla said microfactories can not only produce high performance materials and products, they eliminate the necessity of expensive machinery, save on the extraction from the environment of yet more natural materials, and reduce the impact of burning waste and dumping it in landfill.

“Rather than export our rubbish overseas, the microfactory technology has the potential for us to export valuable materials and newly manufactured products instead,” Ms Sahajwalla said. “Through the microfactory technology, we can enhance our economy and be part of the global supply chain by supplying more valuable materials around the world and stimulating manufacturing innovation in Australia.”

While the SMaRT Centre is expanding its partnerships with industry, investors and local councils, the challenge is to commercialise and create incentives for industry to take up this technology – and to change behaviour – as societies and communities around the world seek to be more sustainable.

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