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Maximilian Ueberschaar, Sarah J Otto, and Vera S Rotter (2017)

Challenges for critical raw material recovery from WEEE – The case study of gallium

Waste Management, 60:534-545.

Gallium and gallium compounds are more frequently used in future oriented technologies such as photovoltaics, light diodes and semiconductor technology. In the long term the supply risk is estimated to be critical. Germany is one of the major primary gallium producer, recycler of gallium from new scrap and GaAs wafer producer. Therefore, new concepts for a resource saving handling of gallium and appropriate recycling strategies have to be designed. This study focus on options for a possible recycling of gallium from waste electric and electronic equipment. To identify first starting points, a substance flow analysis was carried out for gallium applied in integrated circuits applied on printed circuit boards and for LEDs used for background lighting in Germany in 2012. Moreover, integrated circuits (radio amplifier chips) were investigated in detail to deduce first approaches for a recycling of such components. An analysis of recycling barriers was carried out in order to investigate general opportunities and risks for the recycling of gallium from chips and LEDs. Results show, that significant gallium losses arose in primary production and in waste management. 93 ± 11%, equivalent to 43,000 ± 4700 kg of the total gallium potential was lost over the whole primary production process until applied in electronic goods. The largest share of 14,000 ± 2300 kg gallium was lost in the production process of primary raw materials. The subsequent refining process was related to additional 6900 ± 3700 kg and the chip and wafer production to 21,700 ± 3200 kg lost gallium. Results for the waste management revealed only low collection rates for related end-of-life devices. Not collected devices held 300 ± 200 kg gallium. Due to the fact, that current waste management processes do not recover gallium, further 80 ± 10 kg gallium were lost. A thermal pre-treatment of the chips, followed by a manual separation allowed an isolation of gallium rich fractions, with gallium mass fractions up to 35%. Here, gallium loads per chip were between 0.9 and 1.3 mg. Copper, gold and arsenic were determined as well. Further treatment options for this gallium rich fraction were assessed. The conventional pyrometallurgical copper route might be feasible. A recovery of gold and gallium in combination with copper is possible due to a compatibility with this base-metal. But, a selective separation prior to this process is necessary. Diluted with other materials, the gallium content would be too low. The recycling of gallium from chips applied on printed circuit boards and LEDs used for background lighting is technically complex. Recycling barriers exist over the whole recycling chain. A forthcoming commercial implementation is not expected in nearer future. This applies in particular for chips carrying gallium.

Critical metals, Gallium, Material flow analysis, Recovery, Recycling, Recycling barriers, Substance flow analysis (SFA), Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

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