E-Waste - A Global Problem

Electronic waste is a ubiquitous side-effect of our 21st century consumption habits. In 2021, around 60 million tons of e-waste were produced worldwide – and the trend is increasing. E-waste is one of the largest waste streams in the world but less than 18% is properly collected and recycled.1The rest causes enormous problems for the environment and human health, and the economic potential of large amounts of valuable resources are wasted.2Among those, the Rare-Earth Elements play a most critical role. This group of elements contains many of the materials that make our modern, interconnected world possible – as well as enable zero-carbon electricity production and storage. Of these critically important resources, only around 1% is recovered from electronic waste.3 This makes their global supply chains extremely vulnerable, endangering our sustainable future.4

RareCycle Closes the Loop

Rare-Earth recovery today faces many technical challenges, especially in separating the different elements due to their chemical similarities.3The high specificity of bio-based approaches could be the key to breaking barriers. Our project aims to design a selective, modular bioremediation process for the recycling of Rare-Earth Elements from e-waste on a variety of scopes and scales. Our focus lies on the decentralization and democratization of e-waste recycling!

The key component of our process is the use of genetically modified filamentous fungi as a biosorption material. By nature, fungi already show exemplary bioremediation capabilities and mycofiltration is a promising technology for a variety of separation procedures.5Through the power of synthetic biology, we will bring these abilities to a new level by expressing special metal-binding peptides on their surface. These peptides can selectively bind to certain Rare-Earth Elements and thus extract them from solution.

Fig 1. | The RareCycle process.

Furthermore, we developed a novel apparatus that combines the cultivation of the modified fungi and the extraction process. The fungal mycelium lends itself perfectly as a fast growing, adaptable filter matrix for a variety of applications.4Our goal is to make the study and deployment of mycelium-based biosorption processes accessible to everyone – and lower the barriers of local and global Rare-Earth recovery.

Recycle where you Discard

Look around you now! Wireless headphones, smart watches, laptop pens... Where do these go when (inevitably) the next generation of smart devices arrives? Sure, you keep them in some dark corner of your desk for a while, and when the right opportunity comes, discard them at a municipal collecting station. But after that? When we asked ourselves that question in the beginning of our iGEM journey, we had no idea.

Fig 2. | Our motivation: too much e-waste.

Suddenly, it was all around us. Calculators, e-scooters, drones, everywhere we saw scrap-to-be without exactly knowing how we dealt as a society with this e-waste.

We realized that we are the first generation to deal with such a huge number of technological marvels at our disposal – and our future depends on their correct disposal.

Imagine, you could contribute to e-waste recycling with low effort and directly within your neighborhood. Our hardware is easily reproducible, has minimal material requirements, and opens the future of local, community-based recycling. Every society on earth possesses the ability to care for and cultivate produce - like fungi – and thus has a slumbering epicenter for our mycelium-based recycling technology at its heart. Industrialized countries often export their electronic waste to the global south. This circumvents important regulations and poses immense threats of environmental contamination and health risks to these communities.6In the future, everyone should deal with their own waste – it is only fair. We will make it possible!

Experience RareCycle!

MycoFlux - our decentralized Hardware solution

Our MycoFlux apparatus is a low-barrier, cost-effective and easily reproducible recycling system that communities can use to cultivate and deploy metal-binding fungi! See how we designed, built and tested the MycoFlux on our Hardware Page.

Molecular dynamics of metal-binding peptides

We modeled the molecular dynamics of metal-binding peptides to better understand their function and behavior using state-of-the-art techniques. Besides our Modeling Page, you can also find a guide to the modeling software in our Contribution.

Democratizing sustainable recycling worldwide

Our mission is to empower communities to recycle their own e-waste via sustainable, synthetic biology. We share the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and used them as a guideline to build a network through our Human Practices. Learn more about our Sustainable Development Impact!

Please click on the cards to reveal their information.

The Future of Rare-Earth Recovery

Establishing new, sustainable sources of Rare-Earth elements is incredibly important. Many countries have already formulated national strategies in this field.7Therefore, we are glad that we can build upon the experience of past iGEM teams that have performed impressive research on Rare-Earth recovery. iGEM Calgary 2021 researched extracting Rare-Earth Elements from bioleached e-waste. Bioleaching is also a preliminary step in our RareCycle process. 8iGEM Bonn 2021 also studied the special binding protein lanmodulin, which we have incorporated into our project. 9Team Stanford-Brown 2012 and Team Stanford-Brown-RSID 2018 respectively worked on the expression of metal-binding proteins and the use of mycelium as a biofilter for the application in space.10,11Stemming from these iGEM projects, efforts have been made to equip fungal surfaces with metal-binding peptides.12Wheras previous approaches coated the mycelium with the peptides, we work towards producing these peptides in the fungus itself and using a surface display system to expose them to the e-waste solution.

We believe the future for effective and sustainable Rare-Earth recovery on earth lies in the combination and decentralized application of these technologies. Welcome to RareCycle! We are excited to share with you our ideas and results in this Wiki.

  1. Geneva Environment Network (2023)
    The Growing Environmental Risks of E-Waste
    Retrieved on 28.06.2023
  2. World Health Organization (2021)
    Soaring e-waste affects the health of millions of children, WHO warns
    Retrieved on 28.06.2023
  3. V. Balaram (2019)
    Rare earth elements: A review of applications, occurrence, exploration, analysis, recycling, and environmental impact
    Geoscience Frontiers 10, 4, 1285-1303
  4. G. Pawar, R.C. Ewing (2022)
    Recent advances in the global rare-earth supply chain
    MRS Bulletin 47, 244–249
  5. S.M. Mnkandla, P.V. Otomo (2021)
    Effectiveness of mycofiltration for removal of contaminants from water: a systematic review protocol
    Environ Evid 10, 17
  6. C.P. Baldé, E. D’Angelo, V. Luda, O. Deubzer, R. Kuehr (2022)
    Global Transboundary E-waste Flows Monitor - 2022, United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), Bonn, Germany
    Retrieved on 28.06.2023
  7. E. Barteková, R. Kemp (2016)
    National strategies for securing a stable supply of rare earths in different world regions
    Resources Policy, Volume 49, Pages 153-164
  8. Team Calgary 2021
    iGEM Competition 2021
  9. Team Bonn-Rheinbach 2021
    iGEM Competition 2021
  10. Team Stanford-Brown 2012
    The Transit of Synthetic Astrobiology
    iGEM Competition 2012
  11. Team Stanford-Brown-RSID 2018
    A new approach to biomining: Bioengineering surfaces for metal recovery from aqueous solutions
    iGEM Competition 2018
  12. J. Urbina, A. Patil, K. Fujishima, I. G. Paulino-Lima, C. Saltikov, L. J. Rothschild (2019)
    A new approach to biomining: Bioengineering surfaces for metal recovery from aqueous solutions
    Sci Rep 9, 16422