A local industrial waste and recycling firm has invented a technique that could save the small electroplating industry here plenty of money - and vast amounts of wasted water.
About 200 electroplating companies here play an important role in supporting the oil and gas, chemical, aerospace, pharmaceutical and other industries.
To date, however, their operations have not been efficient, especially in the use of vast amounts of water - an increasingly precious commodity.
In using electricity and chemicals to treat metals to make them shine or protect them, each of these companies uses about 50 tonnes of water daily to dilute the resultant waste chemicals.
"Otherwise, the water can't be discharged into the sewage system. It would be toxic," said Mr Chang Jen Heng, 71, technical director of Envichem Technologies.
His company has invented a process to recycle the used chemicals and retrieve the metal residual in the chemicals.
"My process can do two things, like killing two birds with one stone. The recycled chemicals can be re-used in the electroplating process while the metals we recover like nickel can be sold.
"More importantly, we save a lot of water which is important in Singapore. In recycling the chemicals, we also help the companies to save on buying new quantities," he said.
It was during his visits to electroplating companies as a consultant with the Precision Engineering Centre of Innovation that he found that recycling was a major problem faced by these firms.
It was not a new problem. In his nearly 40 years of experience as a chemical engineer working for other companies such as Citizen Watch, he had often seen similar challenges - but no easy answers.
He then collaborated with a colleague, senior research officer Christopher Low, 41, at the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), to find a solution.
The centre is part of SIMTech which is a research institute under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).
Dr John Yong, the centre's director, said that the recycling process was a way to help the local electroplating industry become more productive and competitive.
"At the same time, we solve social problems, save water and protect the environment."
After two to three years of research, Mr Chang and Mr Low have invented a recycling method for the waste chemicals.
Last year, they licensed the technology and spun Envichem out of A*Star to commercialise it.
Said Mr Low: "We now have to build a pilot plant to test our process. Working successfully with beakers in the lab is one thing. Now we've to test if it works with tonnes of chemicals."
Mr Chang said: "We can reduce the electroplating companies' operation costs by half. Moreover, after treating the chemicals and removing the metal sediments in there, we can recover them, many of them are precious metals like silver, gold and nickel which we can sell."
The company successfully applied for a $500,000 grant from Spring Singapore's Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme to let them build its pilot plant development in Shun Li Industrial Park in Kaki Bukit.
Unfortunately, in its market research, the company discovered that electroplating companies here were downsizing, moving many of their operations to neighbouring countries, said Mr Kelven Lam, 26, Envichem's project director.
In parallel with preparations for the pilot plant, the company did market research to identify other industries where their recycling process could be used too.
They discovered that the process could be used in the production of margarine, which uses a metal catalyst like nickel during the hydrogenation process when margarine is made.
Mr Lam explained that the nickel loses its efficiency, clogs up with oil and must be disposed of.
This would be expensive as new batches of fresh chemical and nickel must be used.
"We can use our recycling process to recover the nickel from the chemical, allowing the chemical to be re-used.
"Meanwhile the nickel we recover can be used. About 50 per cent of nickel in the world is used in making stainless steel. So we think we've a viable business plan."
Said Mr Low: "With our pilot plant, we are also testing our business model. Do we provide a service, that is, customers bring us their waste chemicals for treatment? Or do we make the equipment for sale to customers?"
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