Montreal-based enim has high hopes to be a global leader in the growing field of ‘urban mines’ with its chemical-based recycling of circuit boards to reuse valuable metals like gold and copper.
Founded in the fall of 2022 by Montreal-based engineering firms Seneca experts-conseils and Dundee Sustainable Technologies Inc., enim will have approximately 50 people from both companies involved in the project.
Its two full-time employees are the director of development and legal affairs Gabriel Trottier-Hardy and CEO Simon Racicot.
enim (which is “mine” backwards) uses the expertise of its founding companies to transform the mountains of electronic waste (e-waste) around the world into a source of greener and cleaner critical minerals.
“The concept of urban mining is a worldwide trend and is getting more and more important,” Trottier-Hardy told SustainableBiz. It is offered as a solution for the interest in sustainably-sourced metals with a lower carbon footprint.
enim’s hydrometallurgical recycling
With the enormous increase in demand for electronics, there has been a corresponding rise in the creation of circuit boards. Used in computers, smartphones, tablet computers, cars and most consumer electronics, circuit boards contain valuable minerals like gold, silver, platinum and copper that can be recycled and reused.
Urban mining recovers the minerals from waste electronics and recycles them, eliminating the need to mine and process for more ores.
If the disposed electronics and their circuit boards manage to reach a recycling facility, they are usually smelted to extract the minerals. Trottier-Hardy noted how this generates toxic, polluting waste. enim opted for a hydrometallurgical (combination of water and chemicals) solution to recycle circuit boards.
enim starts by shredding the circuit boards. The scraps are dunked in a pool of acids and bases Trottier-Hardy called “our special sauce,” which allows enim to recuperate the metals one by one.
Unlike other hydrometallurgical processes that have a metals recovery rate in the low-80s range, Trottier-Hardy said enim’s stands above 95 per cent.
And compared to smelting, enim creates no toxic wastes in the form of gases, solids or liquids, he added.
It also holds up to the increasing use of smaller circuit boards that tend to be challenging for recycling through smelting, Trottier-Hardy said.
The chemical concoction the company designed is reusable, and even the waste minerals with low value can be revalorized.
The recycled metals can be sold or repurposed for other uses. “So we literally have zero waste in the process,” the enim executive said. “The intent is for even stuff that doesn’t have value to find a way to reuse it so nothing is wasted.”
The director of development and legal affairs hopes there will be a premium for green minerals derived from recycling e-waste produced from companies like enim.
The carbon footprint and financial cost of mining critical minerals from the ground or regaining them through smelting is “huge,” according to Trottier-Hardy. He said enim feels “extremely confident that the green product we have adds higher value,” while remaining environmentally friendly, by contrast.
It is also a scalable plant model that can be used for big and small companies. “. . . we can integrate (the plant) into other key players of the value chain of the electronics,” Trottier-Hardy said.
enim’s pilot plant
Armed with $3 million in funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, enim is creating a $13-million pilot facility in Thetford Mines, Que. with a recycling capacity of 200 tonnes per year by modifying a portion of a Dundee plant.
enim plans to start operations and is acquiring the necessary materials to treat circuit boards at Thetford Mines.
Trottier-Hardy said the goal is to reach a stage where all the engineering and chemical processes are optimized before enim can advance with a financing round to support its production plan for 2025.
By 2025, enim hopes to build a new facility with a recycling capacity up to 5,000 tonnes of circuit boards per year. A location is not set yet for the facility, and Trottier-Hardy said it will have to meet enim's criteria for optimal transportation costs, a low carbon footprint and proximity to e-waste.
Though limited only to circuit boards right now, Trottier-Hardy said enim’s technique can be applied to other electronic waste.
enim’s vision for the future
Though the projected price tag for its commercial plan is said to be a hefty $150 million to $200 million, Trottier-Hardy is encouraged by the Canadian government’s initiative to secure domestic critical minerals, such as the critical minerals strategy.
“It gives me hope that there might be other sorts of legislation coming in the upcoming years to try to protect even more and give even more incentives to recuperate and recycle the old electronics they have.”
He said regulations and incentives can propel Canada’s e-waste recycling rate closer to Europe’s, which is approximately 40 per cent.
Trottier-Hardy aspires to see enim be a world leader in urban mining and metal revalorization within the next five to seven years. The the only step left is finding the right partners in the value chain.
It is also a desire to show the world that Quebec has expertise in urban mining through companies such as enim, Seneca and Dundee. That creates a “virtuous circle” attracting partners and big original equipment manufacturers in industries like automobiles and phones that will reintegrate green minerals in their products.
Editor's note: Added more details about enim's staff and the Thetford Mines plant.