Chemical Recycling of Electronic-Waste for Clean Fuel Production

  • Jayaseelan Arun
  • Kannappan Panchamoorthy GopinathEmail author
Part of the Environmental Chemistry for a Sustainable World book series (ECSW, volume 33)


Electronic-waste was the main waste stream raising concern to the researchers globally. Improper recycling and disposal techniques resulted in solemn effects on the atmosphere and public well-being. This chapter explains the systematic methods used for management of Electronic-waste. Electronic-waste managing would be an ideal start-up business platform toward energy production and metal recovery. The recycling pathways are designed by considering the current industrial reality and design strategies. Chemical recycling is a compilation of pyrolysis, catalytic cracking/upgrading, gasification, and chemolysis methods. Pyrolyzing of Electronic-waste prior to catalytic cracking method yielded high-quality oil. This oil can be further upgraded into clean fuels. Integrated process (pyrolysis and catalytic upgrading) results in considerable financial and ecological benefits during processing Electronic-waste into clean fuels.


Electronic-waste chemical recycling Clean fuel Energy Valuable chemical Plastics Hydrothermal Gasification Combustion Environment 

6.1 Introduction

Modernized electronic inventions with shorter lifespan of electronic goods made electronic commerce as the primary budding sector globally. Subsequently, this paved way for the generation of waste electrical and electronic equipments in huge quantity annually. Well-developed and budding countries are facing a serious challenge in Electronic-waste management. Waste electrical and electronic equipments have received attractions universally because of its unique characteristics, energy value, and impact on the environment and individual healthiness (Ongondo et al. 2011; Perez-Belis et al. 2015). Electronic-waste generation was growing at an exponential rate as much as three times higher than a municipal waste generation (Rahmani et al. 2014). Researchers on recycling plastic wastes have reached a significant level taking into consideration the ecological benefits and energy demand of the society.

Electronics and electrical wastes are inhomogeneous and composite in terms of composition and equipment makeup. They are toxic as heavy metals and hence need safe usage and recycling to keep away from destructive effects on human and environment well-being (Freegard et al. 2006; Song and Li 2015). Various materials can be recovered from waste electrical and electronic equipment recycling process (Widmer et al. 2005). Currently, four methods available for treating waste electrical and electronic equipment plastics were landfilling, incineration, mechanical recycling, and chemical recovery. Apart from these four methods, pyrolysis is also adopted in many countries for producing hydrocarbons and chemical compounds.

Electronic-waste recycling due to poor technical capacity and inadequate collection methods have achieved only 13% recycling rate despite various recycling technologies available throughout the world (Jiang et al. 2012). Globally research on Electronic-waste recycling was still far from generating closed loop systems for efficient processing of Electronic-waste to recover valuable chemicals (Li et al. 2015). Theoretical guide to recycling waste should make use of the precedent experience, and it should deal with the current electronics production rate. The eco-friendly design attracted the consumers, recyclers, and manufacturers (Stevels et al. 2013).

6.2 Electronic-Waste: A Business Platform

Electronic-waste or waste electrical and electronic equipment was generated from a vast and broad range of household equipments (refrigerators, mobile phones, air conditioners, etc.) and electronic computers which are discarded by their owners (Nnorom and Osibanjo 2008a). Figure 6.1 elaborates the Electronic-waste production globally from various goods. Waste electrical and electronic equipments mainly comprised of ferrous and nonferrous metals and plastics (Fig. 6.2) (Huisman et al. 2008). Electronic-waste produced in 2014 possessed 16.5 million tons (Mt) of iron, 1.9 Mt of copper, and 8.6 Mt of plastics around a predictable cost of US $52 billion (Balde et al. 2015). Additionally, toxic materials consist of lead glass (2.2 Mt), batteries (0.3 Mt), and 4400 t of ozone-depleting substances like mercury, cadmium, and chromium. Due to these compositions, waste electrical and electronic equipments emerge as a secondary resource.
Fig. 6.1

Various sectors responsible for Electronic-waste generation

Fig. 6.2

The composition of waste electrical and electronic equipment

Electronic-waste was the resource of income for industries as well as offers new jobs for the public. In India, Bangalore produces 18,000 metric tons of Electronic-waste annually. Table 6.1 elaborates the various Electronic-wastes types and their source of equipments which they are generated. Presence of gold, platinum, aluminum, copper, and earth metals in Electronic-waste is enough to reuse and provides a huge turn over for the industries. Plastic content in Electronic-waste was a good raw material for pyrolysis process and thermochemical treatment process. Pyrolysis oil recovered after decomposing Electronic-waste was used as a substitute for diesel in generators.
Table 6.1

Electronic-waste and its source of electronic instruments

S. no

Waste category

Source of Electronic-waste


IT and telecommunication

LAN, cell phones, printers, modems



MP3 players, DVD players, digital camera, computers


Major household products

Air conditioners, refrigerator, washing machine, micro-oven


Minor household products

Video game consoles, electric kettles, television, grinder


Electrical and electronic products

Transistors, diodes, integrated circuits, batteries, transformers, resistors, wires


Monitoring instruments

Thermostat, microcontrollers, relays


Medical devices

Biomedical instruments, thermometer


Automated instruments

Automatic soap and water dispensers, etc.

6.2.1 Plastics in Electronic-Waste

Plastics are the derivatives of petrochemicals which are derived from petroleum fuels (OIL 2008). Plastics are the synthetic resources comprising of macromolecular composites; they can be recycled back to their raw assets under appropriate process parameters. Figure 6.2 elaborates the composition of plastics. Plastics account for nearly 20% of total waste electrical and electronic equipment plastics, 5% of flame-retarded and 15% non-flame-retarded plastics. More than 15 types of plastics make up waste electrical and electronic equipments, namely, polyesters, polyurethane, acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, polyethylene, polyamide, polypropylene, polystyrene, styrene acrylonitrile, etc. (Vilaplana and Karlsson 2008).

6.2.2 Electronic-Waste Management Issues

Technical innovation and economic development in developing countries made them produce a huge amount of electrical and electronic equipments (Hossain et al. 2015). Also Electronic-waste management was the huge headache for countries, since they are produced or imported as used items (Nnorom and Osibanjo 2008b). Due to low income and middle income, Electronic-waste is disposed of in unsanitary landfill sites. Wires are burned down to recover copper in it. Printed circuit boards are acid extracted to retrieve gold, platinum, palladium, and silver coated in them. These kinds of activities are seen in developing countries like India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ghana; somewhere they lack the facility to safeguard health and environment (Leung et al. 2006; SEPA 2011). Seitz (2014) revealed Electronic-waste was a rising concern among developing countries toward the environment and public health.

6.2.3 Worldwide Electronic-Waste Generation

Fossil fuels were exploited heavily and utilized as a cheap energy source. If these exist, they get depleted in near future which paves way for the emerging of secondary energy source. In 2014 worldwide 41.8 Mt of Electronic-waste was produced, and it was estimated to increase around 50 Mt in 2018 at a yearly growth rate of 5% (Balde et al. 2015). China is an emerging economy and the largest electronic-manufacturing country which makes them second in waste electrical and electronic equipment generation next to the USA (McCann and Wittmann 2015). Emerging countries were generating twice the amount of Electronic-waste than the urbanized countries. Developed countries were even depositing their Electronic-waste onto the developing countries leading to serious issues. This causes serious environmental problems and health issues for the local population. Table 6.2 elaborates the types of waste produced across various developing and developed countries.
Table 6.2

Literature review on types of waste produced across countries


Type of waste




Ikhlayel (2017)



Abduli et al. (2011)



Buratti et al. (2015)



De-Souza et al. (2016)



Hong et al. (2015)



Ikhlayel et al. (2016)



Thanh and Matsui (2013)



Song et al. (2013)



Bian et al. (2016)



Erses-Yay (2015)

6.2.4 Electronic-Waste on Environmental Public Health

Several types of research were under progress to study the effect of Electronic-waste on the environment. Xue et al. (2015) reported the impact of formal recycling of printed circuit boards on the environment. Fujimori et al. (2012) reported the enhancement factors, dangerous indicators, and concentration of metals present in soil due to proper and improper recycling of Electronic-waste. Mostly, major studies are carried on focusing on the emissions from improper recycling of wastes. Some studies are conducted on assessing the effect of Electronic-waste on health.

6.3 Energy Recovery from Electronic-Waste

Plastic wastes can be incinerated in bulk quantity to generate energy; due to the presence of high-value polymers, they can act as an alternative fuel resource. However, energy recovery may be ecologically resourceful in the case of bulk handling of plastics by fulfilling the emission regulations and energy need. Figure 6.3 elaborates the methodology for energy recovery from Electronic-waste.
Fig. 6.3

Energy recovery from Electronic-waste

Recycling of plastics through mechanical and chemical methods is getting its importance than land filling and incineration methods. Chemical recycling is an economically feasible technique for waste electrical and electronic equipment treatment, including methods like pyrolysis, hydrothermal treatment, and catalytic pyrolysis toward converting waste electrical and electronic equipment plastics into chemicals and high-energy fuels.

6.3.1 Chemical Recycling

Plastic waste and Electronic-waste are used as feedstock for generation of fuels and valuable products. Globally the interest was not only on treatment of waste but also on recovery of some eco-friendly products like petrochemical feedstock. These feedstocks possess higher hydrocarbon content than other biomass. Base material is cheaper than the chemically recycled polymers due to capital investment, raw material cost, etc. Polyethylene terephthalate methanolysis was carried out with methanol under higher temperatures (180–280 °C) and pressures (20–40 atm), yielding dimethyl terephthalate and ethylene glycol. Table 6.3 describes the advantages and challenges of the chemical and mechanical recycling process. Matsushita Electric Works, Ltd., Japan, was generating a depolymerization methodology for treating flame-retardant polymers through hydrolysis under subcritical water. In this methodology, recycling rate of 70% was achieved on recycling thermosetting resin in flame-retardant polymers into basic materials.
Table 6.3

Advantages and demerits of chemical recycling and mechanical recycling process





Mechanical recycling



Restricted to two mixtures


Higher recycling value

The thermal mechanical decomposition process

Chemical recycling


Synthesis of value-added chemicals

Bulk processing makes cost effective


Easy to handle

Low tolerance to PVC

Catalytic cracking

Narrow product formation

The catalyst cannot be reused


Suitable for a mixture of plastics

High investment and operational cost


Syngas formation

Air supply and processing is tedious

6.3.2 Mechanochemical Treatment

Mechanochemistry-mechanical and multiphase characteristics need higher energized mills with various operating parameters like density, shear, and impact (Balaz et al. 2013). Figure 6.4 shows the mechanochemical treatment method for clean fuel production from Electronic-waste. Parameters influencing milling practice were the mill type, processing materials, ball to powder ratio, filling chamber, processing speed and time, etc. (Balaz 2008). Recently studies reveal that the mechanochemistry method was used for degrading solid wastes and recycling of plastics (Guo et al. 2010). Advantages of mechanochemical treatment process than conventional methods were an uncomplicated process, ecological safety, and product that can be recovered in a meta-stable state. Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene polymers and high-impact polystyrene and styrene copolymers are the various types of engineering polymers present in polymeric composites (16 wt% of waste electrical and electronic equipments). Thermochemical recycling of plastics yields monomers and fuel under pyrolytic conditions (Grause et al. 2011).
Fig. 6.4

Clean fuel production from Electronic-waste

A new methodology of bromine removal from styrene polymers was reported in literature (Grause et al. 2015). Decabromodiphenyl ethane was removed effectively through NaOH/ethylene glycol solution in moderate environment (150–190 °C) in a ball mill reactor. Debromination is done by substituting hydroxide or elimination of hydrogen bromide. Once decabromodiphenyl ethane is removed, the residue is suitable for mechanical recycling. After the removal of brominated organic compounds, the quality of fuel products is upgraded and their environmental effects are decreased.

Dehalogenation of solid plastics is increased by adding additives during mechanochemical treatment process. Generally, additives like alkali metal oxides (calcium oxide, sodium hydroxide), iron powders, and quartz (silica) are employed as catalytic adsorbents. Since, these materials are unsustainable, novel method was developed through simultaneous grinding of plastics in the midst of sustainable resources (e.g., biopolymers, biowastes, eco-friendly minerals) through mechanochemical treatment for clean fuel synthesis was elaborated in Fig. 6.4.

6.3.3 Hydrothermal Process

Thermal conduct of waste electrical and electronic equipment plastics emerged as a suitable skill by degrading organo-bromine compounds, also in situ and secure exclusion of bromine constituents from the oil products. The supercritical fluid technology has emerged as a potential technique for chemical recycling of plastic wastes. Supercritical fluids act as a better chemical medium under optimum conditions for depolymerization, hydrolysis, hydrogenation, and dehydrogenation with properties like low viscosity, low dielectric content, high mass transport coefficient, and higher diffusivity (Shibasaki et al. 2004; Zhang et al. 2013).

Hydrothermal treatment was preferred for clean fuel production because of its higher efficiency than pyrolysis of biomass and sewage waste (Yu et al. 2016; Shen et al. 2016). Reactor corrosion and higher energy utilization is the only drawback in supercritical fluid method (Guo et al. 2009). Selection of appropriate supercritical fluid and enhancers, price and operating parameters, etc. are the common challenges faced during the hydrothermal treatment process.

Hydrothermal process is of two major types: (i) hydrothermal liquefaction and (ii) hydrothermal gasification . The quality of final product is decided by the operating parameters and environment (Yan et al. 2010). Dehalogenation by hydrothermal treatment method has been studied in recent days for plastics compounds (Starnes 2012). Solid fuel properties are significantly increased by unification of biomass through hydrothermal conditions.

6.3.4 Pyrolysis

Pyrolysis is an environment-friendly and economically feasible technique for waste electrical and electronic equipment plastic treatment than landfilling and incineration. Emission of toxic gases into the environment is lesser than incineration process (Bhaskar et al. 2002). Pyrolysis is an efficient method of valorizing Electronic-waste which can recuperate the valuable compounds with low emission of pollutants into the atmosphere. Plastic wastes are converted into fuel by fast pyrolysis since it is a promising technique for protecting the environment from these nondegradable plastics. During pyrolysis, plastics are thermally degraded and rehabilitated into oil, gaseous, and charred products at (700–900 K) in an inert atmosphere. Pyrolysis generates bio-oil with high bromine and chlorine content (Lopez et al. 2011).

Pyrolysis was carried out as single-step cracking process under the closed environment. Fixed, fluidized bed and tubular reactors are used for pyrolysis process and divided into three major processes based on process parameters like conventional, fast, and slow pyrolysis (Wu and Williams 2013). Fluidized bed reactor acts as a better heat and mass transfer equipment yielding thin-layered plastic, suggesting the polymer degradation. Fast and slow pyrolysis methods follow the finest route for converting brominated flame-retardant plastics onto clean fuels and valuable products than conventional pyrolysis process. Recently, a study revealed that printed circuit boards pyrolysis resulted in a higher content of bromine, glass fibers, and metals (Copper) (Shen et al. 2018). Thermal Pyrolysis

Waste when subjected to thermal decomposition under zero oxygen environment yields char, oil, and gaseous products which are further upgraded and used as fuels. Several studies were reported on pyrolysis of brominated flame-retardant plastics in various reactors (Hall and Williams 2006; Jung et al. 2012; Miskolczi et al. 2008). Results suggest that pyrolysis of brominated high-impact polystyrene resulted in higher yield of oil in fixed bed reactor. Pyrolysis oil contains toluene, ethylbenzene, styrene, and cumene. Pyrolysis of brominated high-impact polystyrenes produced 98 wt% of oil containing 61.7 wt% of volatile products which were resulted due to the thermal steadiness of polymeric chains. Pyrolysis of brominated high-impact polystyrenes yielded oil around 500 mg/g plastic. In contrast, brominated acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene pyrolysis yields 400 mg/g of plastic. Co-pyrolysis

Combined pyrolysis technique basically deals with two or more dissimilar materials as resource to yield oil with improved quality and quantity. Co-pyrolysis can reduce manufacturing cost and resolve several problems in managing waste. Due to inherent complexity, several issues arise in Electronic-waste management. Co-pyrolysis improves quality and quantity of pyrolysis oil without any catalyst or solvents, which made this method an unavoidable technique in industrial applications (Abnisa and Daud 2014).

6.3.5 Combustion Process

Combustion of fossil fuels was replaced by biomass and wastes for energy and heat generation. This process is a technically feasible method to reduce harmful greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) into the environment. However, replacing conventional fossil fuels ended up generating a huge amount of ash-related problems (slagging, corrosion, and fouling). Alkali metal usage can overcome these problems (Hansen et al. 2000). Brominated fuel possesses a promising effect on volatilization of metals like potassium, iron, copper, zinc, and lead (Vehlow et al. 2003). Halogen hydrides and small-chain halogenic organic compounds were resulted from decomposition of organic halogenated compounds. Chlorinated plastics (waste electrical and electronic equipments, polyvinyl chloride, textiles) and halogen hybrids (hydrogen chloride, hydrogen bromide) were the chief products produced through combustion method (Wu et al. 2014).

Brominated flame retardants containing wastes generate polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polybrominated dibenzofurans through the course of combustion process (Wang and Zhang 2012). Under thermal conditions they are involved in the recycling process. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers act as a substrate for production. Insufficient combustion process or disturbed process leads to fire accidents, uncontrolled burning, and gasification.

6.3.6 Gasification Process

Pyrolysis under elevated temperature generates fuels (oil, gas) possessing higher heating value. Liquid fuels produced from circuit boards through pyrolysis at 800 °C in static temperature conditions possessed brominated compounds; this made them unusable without further downstream processing (William and Paul 2007). Partial oxidation of waste electrical and electronic equipment plastic at an elevated temperature (1200 °C) decreased the brominated or chlorinated dioxins in gas products. Nevertheless the halogen compounds in gaseous products were not in permissible limits for use as fuels. Majority of organo-brominated compounds in brominated flame retardants are broken down into hydrogen bromide and bromine at higher temperature due to their fundamentals (Jin et al. 2011). Usage of calcium oxide deliberately increases the inorganic bromine formation from the organic bromine compounds. Burning circuit boards at elevated temperature effectively breaks down organo-brominated compounds.

Steam gasification emerges as a promising technique because of using carbonate in the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment plastics. Halogenated compounds present within waste electrical and electronic equipment plastics were retrieved in the form of stable organic salts (Zhang et al. 2013). Lithium carbonate, sodium carbonate, and potassium carbonate are used as a catalyst in steam gasification under mild conditions. During steam gasification the carbonate or biomass cannot account for the halogen emission but accelerates the transformation of tar and char into gas products from plastics (Lopez et al. 2015).

6.3.7 Integrated Process

Numerous methods like mechanochemical treatment and hydrothermal treatment processes were employed to remove halogenated compounds present in plastics. In that case the solid waste was upgraded through hydrothermal treatment process. Table 6.4 elaborates the merits and demerits of dehalogenation process through waste plastic recycling. Mechanochemical treatment or hydrothermal treatment process is uncomplicated and eco-friendly. Energy utilization was higher since solid plastics are processed for energy (fuel, oil, etc.) generation. The downstream process needs to be established for these treatment processes. Through sorption and dehalogenation process, only the produced polybrominated diphenyl ethers and printed boards were removed (Huang et al. 2013; Zhuang et al. 2011). Low cost and sustainable additive addition during hydrothermal treatment or mechanochemical treatment process may end up in synergistic effects in thermal applications. In view of industries, mechanochemical treatment and hydrothermal treatment process integrated with catalytic thermal degradation is the ideal method to produce clean fuels from Electronic-waste.
Table 6.4

Merits and demerits of plastic wastes dehalogenation





Simple process, low energy consumption and produce high esteemed products (fuels)

Halogenated compounds (dioxin) can form, costly process


Easy process, produce syngas and fuels, upgrading of these products is easier

Halogenated compounds (dioxin) can form, plastic wastes are not completely degraded


Simple process, complete degradation of plastic wastes

A lesser amount of halogenated compounds (dioxin) forms, high energy consumption


Higher efficiency, time-saving

High cost, energy consumption high


Simple process, need additives addition

Lesser efficiency, high energy consumption

6.3.8 Hydrocracking

Hydrocracking process differs from catalytic upgrading of solid plastics only by hydrogen usage in it. This method was carried out at 70 atm and temperature of 375–400 °C in the presence of a catalyst. Hydrogen usage enhanced the final product quality (superior H/C ratio along with lesser aromatic compounds). The mixture of plastics can be hydrocracked to produce a good quality of naphtha. But this process needs a higher-operating pressure and investment cost.

6.4 Conclusion

Waste management sector needs an integrative thinking and innovative ideas to solve the issues in modern societies. Electronic-waste generated was kept for a shorter span due to lack of safe discarding procedures and improper recycling facilities. Pre-treatment through mechanochemical treatment or hydrothermal treatment process eliminates halogens in plastic wastes. Dehalogenation of plastic wastes was obtained through combined grinding of sustainable wastes. Dehalogenations through mechanochemical treatment or hydrothermal treatment methods are handy as well as environmental process. In view of industries, incorporated method of mechanochemical treatment or hydrothermal treatment with the catalytic thermal methods was preferred for the clean fuel making from Electronic-waste.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jayaseelan Arun
    • 1
  • Kannappan Panchamoorthy Gopinath
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Chemical EngineeringSSN College of EngineeringKalavakkamIndia

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