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Weekend project: Mulch your old PC to save the world

Boffins find powdered circuit boards can suck up toxic metals

Electronic waste dump in China

Willitblend.com, the quaint site that subjects all manner of kit to the tender embrace of a high-powered blender, might be on to something other than the amusement that comes from wanton destruction.

We make that assertion on the basis of this paper, Toxic Heavy Metal Capture Using a Novel Electronic Waste-Based Material—Mechanism, Modeling and Comparison detailing how boffins in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department of Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology ground up some old circuit boards and tested the resulting powder to see if it can absorb heavy metals .

The thinking behind the research is that there are plenty of places in the world where industrial pollution has left unwelcome quantities of heavy metals and other nasties in local water sources. The team also point out that other boffins are finding substances called “synthetic aluminosilicate” are rather good at extracting those nasties from water. They also note that printed circuit boards (PCBs) are full of aluminosilicates.

Better yet, PCBs are being ignored in current e-waste recycling efforts, which concentrate on easy-to-recover-and-re-use metals. What if, the team therefore wondered, we could use all those aluminosilicate-rich PCBs to make a super new heavy-metal-toxin-absorber?

To cut a long story short, the hypothesis has legs. After some doctoring with Potassium hydroxide, the ground up PCBs turned out to display “better removal efficiency [of zinc, copper and lead] than three common industrial adsorbents.”

With millions of tons of dead electronics heading to landfill every year, the success of these tests therefore hints at a possible new way to re-use that old Pentium IV you really must get around to throwing out. And who knows? One day it may be that ground-up PCs are used to clean up a mess created by a PC factory. ®

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