A consortium of recycling players has developed a fully automated method to disassemble electronic devices and recover a high percentage of the precious metals in components. The innovative solution focusses on tantalum, neodymium, tungsten, cobalt and gallium.
The process has resulted from the EU’s four-year ADIR project which has been led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology and involved eight project partners from three countries. Together, they processed around 1 000 mobile phones and 800 printed circuit boards from computers.
Project supervisor Dr Cord Fricke-Begemann says the pilot disassembly plant relies on a combination of laser technology, robotics, vision systems and information technology. The lasers are able to accurately identify materials used in each component in a fast, non-contact process while they are being cut from boards or de-soldered.
‘The patented procedure is an efficient means of recovering strategically important materials of high economic value on an industrial scale,’ reports Fricke-Bergmann. ‘We’ve seen a great deal of interest from experts.’ He says Electrocycling was an important project partner as the first field tests were held at its facility in late 2018.
The recycler used the ADIR demonstrator – consisting of seven interlinked machines – to show how the new processes can recover between 96% and 98% of the tantalum from capacitors. This is significantly higher proportion than the tantalum ore concentrates offered by suppliers of virgin raw material.
The researchers’ experiences have been retained in a database so that recycling operators can configure recycling machines to process the latest phone models.
There is the potential to further refine the concept. Fricke-Bergmann is exploring smarter automation to speed up the dismantling of mobile phone cases to improve access to the printed circuit board, the battery and magnetic components.
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