Microbes have the capacity to chelate. Chelation refers to the affinity of bacteria for a specific metal. Micro-organisms have been active in the mobilization of metals from rocks, minerals and soil for millions of years. Living cells purify and process metals, and make these available to produce enzymes, vitamins and genes. Living cells have the means to process metals. Better, living cells can recognize and bind specific metals and therefore if one were to crush e-waste to dust with small enough particles, and create a medium that binds the metals to the surface, one can get pure metals recycling discarded electronics without smelting.
Scientists like Professor Irving DeVoe from McGill University in Montreal, Canada had studied the bacteria that cause meningitis. Dr. DeVoeʼs data showed that the microbe was extremely efficient in acquiring iron, copper and zinc and soon realized that there are many life forms that scavenge metals. He and his colleagues designed porous beads of glass with high affinity for 42 different metals, including chromium, cadmium, copper and mercury. However, their batch process proved too cumbersome. Capital and operational expenses were too high to compete even with the rocketing gold prices on the market.
Henry Kolesinski, and Robert Cooley are former researchers with Polaroid and Waters Associates respectively, and as experts in film technologies they devised a simple machine that converts the batch process with beads into a continuous extraction of metals on a thin plastic sheet. Their pioneering company Prime Separations (USA) designed a small, low capital cost apparatus that demonstrates the viability using crushed Japanese cell phones supplied by Dowa Mining. The energy cost is minimal and unlike any other metal recovery scheme, the separation technique operates at ambient temperature and pressure. The main energy input is the crushing of e-waste. The key challenge is to mass manufacture the film. The development engineers master the coating with the chelating agents, the next step is the design of a fast rotating system that can process tons of e-waste per hour, instead of kilograms per day. The technique of selective capture as trademarked by Prime Separations will evolve into machines that take the shape of newspaper printing presses.