Tallinn University of Technology

As part of his master’s thesis, Artur Sagarov, a young Estonian engineer, developed a technology that makes it possible to remove critical precious metals, with minimal losses, from the printed circuit boards of old computers before they’re recycled. His solution attracted attention at a prestigious hackathon, and EIT RawMaterials, an Innovation Community within the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, has expressed interest in implementing the project.

Artur Sagarov
Artur Sagarov

Artur Sagarov studied Product Development and Production Engineering at the Tallinn University of Technology and enrolled for a master’s degree at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. As he had been interested in the field of circular economy for a long time, he began to study the possibility of recovering the precious metals used in computer production – gold, silver, copper – from among the plastic in the printed circuit boards due to be recycled. Artur also participated when the Global Digital RACE, a prestigious hackathon featuring sustainability challenges, took place in November 2020. It was an international online competition organized by EIT RawMaterials, the raw materials network of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, where teams were given tasks related to the circular economy of raw materials. “It just so happened that the topic of my master’s thesis was a perfect fit. This was pure coincidence, as solutions to those challenges usually come from hackathon brainstorming sessions. So future participants should not assume that there is nothing to do there without a ready-made idea. Everyone definitely has a chance, and a lot depends on the team,” says Artur Sagarov, while also praising his team, which, in addition to himself, included four talented and motivated developers from across Europe. “Their contribution to the formulation and presentation of the idea should not be underestimated.”

As much metal as possible with the lowest energy consumption

Commenting on his idea, Artur says that he did not reinvent the wheel. The crisis in raw metals means that people all over the world are seeking solutions for making it possible to reuse previously extracted materials with minimal losses. According to Artur Sagarov, about 400,000 tons of printed circuit board (PCB) waste is generated in the European Union every year, of which more than 90% goes to a landfill or is incinerated. “The recycling of PCB waste will increase the availability of copper and other rare metals in the EU, reducing the need for mining and the environmental impact of electronic waste,” says Artur Sagarov. There are various methods for doing this, with smelters and refiners, such as pyrometallurgy to separate the metal from printed circuit boards. “CO2 is emitted during this process. Emissions are generally taxed, while the tax rate depends on the country. Our team offered a solution that reduces emissions (CO2, NOx, SOx, ash, slag) from the initial 70% of input mass to 10%.

This result is achieved by mechanical means. “First, the printed circuit board is ground into small particles. We can then use different methods to separate the metal concentrate, which can also be sorted by type, from the non-metallic parts, such as plastics, epoxies, glass fibers. Separation and grouping by type are particularly important for the circular business model, in which we try to recycle all materials.”

In addition to being sustainable and consuming less energy, the advantage of the technology is that it enables more than 90% recovery of the metal.

The Estonian’s idea has attracted attention. The 2020 Global Digital RACE jury first placed his team among the top nine and finally awarded them first place. Now, the young engineer will present his idea at the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s next EIT Jumpstarter program, which gives young people the opportunity to validate their business concept, develop a business plan, and present their idea to potential investors.

And that’s not all. The innovation community EIT RawMaterials has offered to start developing and using Artur’s idea in the Spanish industrial enterprise Atlantic Copper.

A leading innovation community helping to turn ideas into reality

“EIT RawMaterials is an Innovation Community within the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) that is focused on the field of raw materials,” explains Veiko Karu, Head of the Mining and Mineral Technology Division at the Tallinn University of Technology.

The main goal of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, founded in 2008, is to find solutions to urgent global problems. The scarcity of raw materials is one such problem facing the European Union. The EIT RawMaterials community brings together Europe’s leading experts in science and economy. “Tallinn University of Technology has been part of the community since 2015, and we are privileged to be one of the core partners of EIT RawMaterials, together with other universities in our region such as Aalto University in Finland and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.“

The importance of this should not be underestimated. According to Veiko Karu, EIT RawMaterials has become a very influential organization in the European Union, whose members have, through various projects, shown the world the direction in which innovation in the raw materials sector is moving. In addition, the management of EIT RawMaterials, through its intermediate offices, is in close contact with representatives of both the European Commission and the EU Parliament and can thus have a say in economics, legislation, and other issues. An overview of the current developments in circular economy in Europe will be provided at the GreenEST Summit, a green technology conference to be held at The Creative Hub in Tallinn on October 27–28.

The contribution of EIT RawMaterials has also been significant for universities and students. “We have organized both summer and winter schools for doctoral and master’s students, compiled study materials on circular economy, contributed to start-ups and scale-ups, of course, to the development of innovative products and services,” says Veiko Karu. “The project that has grown out of Artur’s master’s thesis is a perfect example of this. My message to young people is precisely this: don’t just stop with a good idea, but look for opportunities to present it to the world.” Artur Sagarov agrees, “There are several programs and competitions for students. Go for it! I can speak from experience that I participated with my idea purely out of interest since I wanted a new challenge. By now, though, it has had an impact on my life, and I can continue with higher-level work in circular economy, a field that has always interested me.”