Dr Lisa O’Donoghue is resourceful, level-headed and driven, especially when it comes to electronics recycling. Her company Votechnik, a spin-off inspired by her work as a materials scientist at Ireland’s University of Limerick, celebrated its tenth anniversary this June. The business created a patented solution to a modern-day problem: how to deal with discarded liquid crystal displays (LCDs). We’re catching up with her to discuss how far she’s come.
How do you view the electronic scrap recycling sector right now?
‘In Ireland, the e-scrap recycling sector is in general pretty good, being heavily regulated. There are good collection rates for waste electronics in terms of kg per capita, which are then filtered to a handful of specialist electronics recyclers in the country which process everything to a very high standard. The EU is leading the way with good examples such as the European Raw Materials Alliance, the European Batteries Alliance, the Circular Plastics Alliance and the WEEELABEX guidelines. The last allows industry players to self-implement a requirement for high standards and not solely depend on national legislation.’
In your opinion, what is the biggest issue with e-scrap?
‘Getting alignment across the value chain from the producers, manufacturers, transportation sector, consumers, compliance schemes, recyclers and regulators. Each participant has a different objective. The typical route towards growth for any business is to simply do more and that means either selling more or recycling more. The hard fact is that both ends of this value chain depend on customers consuming! The real question is how do you, in the words of the European Green Deal, “uncouple economic growth from resource use”.’
How does the LCD display market look for recyclers?
‘An estimated 200 million TVs and 120 million computer monitors are sold globally in a year. Double monitor viewing screens and home office set-ups are the norm now due to the pandemic, further boosting sales. The concerning aspect regarding LCDs is the hazardous materials they can contain, particularly the mercury-containing fluorescent tubes and liquid crystals. And that’s where Votechnik comes in; we have focused our efforts on creating automated plants to depollute flatscreens.’
How did your solution evolve over the last decade?
‘It all started with the prototype in 2011. ALR1000 was rudimentary with open access blades to cut off the liquid crystal panel and a chain system to smash up the CCFL tubes for removal. For the second generation machine, the entire process was encapsulated within the machine with specialised air filtration for the mercury. It allowed sequential processing of different size LCDs. The ALR3000 (photo left) took another massive leap forward where we decided to use robotics to lift the LCD as lightly as a feather. The latest version, the ALR4000 (photo bottom), has levelled up again with enhanced functionality now processing 60+ LCD, LED and PC monitors per hour. Thanks to our collaborations with KUKA robotics and Siemens, I believe this machine represents the future of LCD recycling.’
Would you say processing LCD screens has become easier?
‘The volumes of LCDs arriving at recycling facilities have increased significantly over the last ten years. While many recyclers were able to keep up with manual disassembly for a period, it has become a lot more difficult. The only exception is countries where manual labour is cheap. Votechnik is very much focused on the SME recycler, empowering them to undertake their own high throughput processing of LCDs, reducing export and transportation costs while enabling them to make a profit.’
How did the pandemic affect Votechnik’s day-to-day operations?
‘The major impact was on our timeframe for manufacturing machines. We adjusted our schedules and moved as much as we could online. We were making plans to undertake large-scale demonstrations at deployment sites to showcase our ALR4000 solution, and to receive groups of international visitors. We had to put all of this on hold. Now more countries are rolling out vaccines and travel restrictions are being lifted, we are excited about welcoming people on site – hopefully in the near future.’
Is legislation, the attitude of producers and sustainability finally in balance?
‘We need producers and the media to develop and drive a desire for different products that are compatible with the circular economy. We are seeing flatscreen design move away from LCD displays and towards LED displays. These have the same structure using liquid crystal but the backlighting is now a light emitting diode. These are much easier to recycle. Better yet, some brands have asked us to help them assess the compatibility of their products and displays with our automated recycling process.’
Are you a big fan of technology?
‘I have to admit I’m not that into gadgets, product upgrades or the latest trends. I have two devices, a phone and laptop, chosen for ease of use, functionality and being lightweight (I used to travel a lot pre-Covid). I use them until they fall apart, break or become too slow. I am more of an analogue person; I love reading and writing. With a pen or beautiful book in my hands, the pop-ups and notifications can’t distract me any longer. It helps me stay focussed in life.’
What is it like being a young woman working in STEM and recycling?
‘I remember leaving an all-girl school to join an all-male class at university for Materials Science and Technology. That was the most abrupt change I think I have ever experienced and have rarely noticed much difference by comparison. The benefits of being female in a traditional male industry are that you stand out more and that can be intriguing or even inspiring for people. The challenges I have experienced growing up are the usual growing pains like wanting acceptance and approval from those around you. After a while I realised, wait, I’m the only one that can truly give myself these things. This is true no matter what field you’re in.’
What people do you look up to in science, recycling and business?
‘I’m inspired by people who forge their own path, create transformation and improve themselves. This includes authors like Ester Hicks and Deepak Chopra and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Walt Disney. When it comes to science, it all started with Star Trek. I remember watching the show as a kid and seeing a group of people come together to explore the unknown. I also have to include Einstein thanks to his almost meditative approach to connecting a problem and the solution and Da Vinci for showing us that we don’t have to be limited to one field of play.’
What quote inspires you most?
‘“The little ideas that tickled and nagged and refused to go away should never be ignored. For in them lie the seeds of destiny.” You won’t expect it but it’s from the 1995 children’s movie Babe.’
Looking back on your career, what achievement are you particularly proud of?
‘Every time I stand in front of one of our new LCD recycling machines, welcoming it into the world, there is a moment of awe. Our latest ALR4000 machine, which stands five metres tall and 12 metres wide and has futuristic white armour, Is not just a cutting-edge piece of engineering, it’s a piece of art. The most recent development that means a lot to me personally is taking up a position on the European Commission’s Operational Expert Group for Raw Materials. It gives me the opportunity to take a stand, share my expertise and help make a difference so we may have a better future.’
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