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Green Recycling Technologies for Telecomm. Servers



Green Recycling Technologies for Telecomm. Servers


Hsu Ching-Hsiang, 

UWin Nanotech. Co., Ltd.


Since the debut of the first personal computer in 1971, more and more people have relied on electronic products to handle their everyday’s affairs. The subsequent advent of the Internet was an even more important milestone in the information age. Servers have played an important role in the digitization of information and the rise of artificial intelligence, but servers have also generated a new type of waste. Electronic waste (E-waste), especially that of high-end electronic products such as cell phones, hard disks, RAM modules and servers, contains more precious metals than natural mines. Traditionally, aqua regia and cyanide have been used to process e-waste, but this technique not only wastes lots of time and cost to treat waste water but also is vulnerable to work hazards that pose serious damage to the environment and the operators.


Green recycling technology for e-waste can greatly reduce its environmental impact and save much cost and time. When it is necessary to scale up for quantity production, the technology allows large-scale container-styled modular combinations of automated machinery to satisfy the required quantity. This study used a comprehensive green recycling technology to effectively process servers of varied brands, such as stripping tin from all parts, categorizing, and extracting and purifying precious metals from IC, MLCC, and connectors. The extraction of precious metals from servers does not damage other parts, making the recycling more complete, safer, and environmentally friendly. This can effectively solve the problems of urban mines.


Precious metals reclaimed from e-waste far exceed virgin mines in quantity and value. Therefore, recycling e-waste in urban mines has long been a way for advanced nations to obtain strategic materials. Traditional recycling plants have all used aqua regia and cyanide to reclaim precious metals. Because past recycling operations were unable to provide effective protection and were not environmentally friendly, they have severely polluted the air, water, and soil and damaged the human’s health of workers. Therefore, using environmentally non-toxic, green chemical methods to reclaim precious metals whose process does not harm workers and does not greatly impact the environment has become a R&D trend at renowned universities across the globe, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, the University of Toronto in Canada, the University of Melbourne in Australia, and the University of Edinburgh in United Kingdom.


The rapid development of the Internet has enabled extremely fast communications among people. The quantity of information has grown ever greater, overwhelming the old Internet. The fast 5G networks will soon become the mainstream communications model. In response to the demand of 5G networks, the production of telecommunication servers across the globe is rising rapidly. Statistics about servers by global brands in 2018 showed a 5% annual growth, reaching 12.42 million units. A server is a computer that possesses a higher computational capacity that serves multiple users concurrently. Servers need Internet connections to execute designated tasks. Unlike personal computers, most servers need to execute work for long periods of time, so they are equipped with many extra auxiliary attachments. Under general conditions, many other servers are connected for the auxiliary tasks. Many types of servers have emerged to meet different demands, such as servers for the homes, for web pages, or for the cloud. Servers can be categorized by their computational power into servers for work groups, for departments, or for enterprises. Servers are made with various electronic parts, the most valuable of which are the precious metals used in making IC chips, printed circuit board and in plating the surfaces of connectors to prevent the oxidation and to improve the conductivity of connectors. As for brands, Dell leads the world in server shipment, accounting for 16.7% of the market. Cisco, IBM, and HP are also well-known global suppliers of servers, supplying network servers, cloud systems servers, and servers for receiving and processing big data.


Because of the rapid technology progress, electronic products are subject to frequent upgrades and replacements, to which servers widely used in every aspect of human life are no exception. Servers need to be replaced every five to ten years. Retired servers are sold as second-hand products or mostly as e-waste. Statistics from the UN show that the world generated 48,500,000 metric tons of e-waste in 2018, an 8.5% growth over 2016. The value of this e-waste is about the same as the annual GDP of Costa Rica. Of all the e-waste, only 20% has been recycled while the whereabouts of the remaining 80% is unknown--some of which has been buried as garbage and some has been sent to Africa or Southeastern Asia to be reclaimed under horrendous conditions. Illegal recycling and dismantling involves profits in the millions of American dollars. Warlords in Africa even threaten and force women and children to process e-waste under horrendous conditions in order to extract precious metals, which they sell for cash to support their civil wars. This has caused serious harm to local environments and residents. Therefore, how to carry out green recycling has become a question that urgently needs an answer.


Compared with large-sized e-waste often seen in Taiwan, servers contain much more precious metals. Depending on the function of servers, each metric ton of server contains from 58 to 266 grams of gold. The Environmental Protection Administration’s data show that large-sized home application waste, such as washing machines and air conditioners, contains less than 20 grams of gold per ton. It proves the high recycling value of servers.


Lacking natural mineral resources, Taiwan’s government import 100% of the metals that it needs. Precious metals are concentrated in the hands of just a few nations. Therefore, Taiwan must effectively leach precious metals from its e-waste so as to lower its reliance on imports. Take servers for example. If properly processed, the whole server is rich in metals. Therefore, the idea of urban mining has taken on increased importance. The investment, production, and export activities of the manufacturing industries in Taiwan are concentrated mostly in electronic components, such as semiconductors, printed circuit boards, flat-panel displays of the optoelectronics industry, and solar-powered batteries. Take printed circuit boards for example. Connectors, circuits on circuit boards, soldering sites on electronic components, manufacturing waste, and scraps are all rich in high-priced metals gold, silver, palladium, copper, and tin. Because these metals are at the front-most end of the industry chain, reclaiming and reusing precious metals from e-waste will help lower production cost and improve the international competitiveness of the industry.