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To sort or not to sort…

Germany – ‘Can you imagine how many different models of mobile phones there are today?’ asked Dr Sven Connemann of the Fraunhofer Institute at this week’s Sensor-Based Sorting & Control Conference in Aachen, Germany. ‘The number is very high, and the same goes for the printed circuit boards inside. There are various types, sizes, each with their own materials compositions ‘ some just a little bit different from the others. This makes sorting incredibly challenging,’ he ventured. The solution? Smart sorting.

While gold may make up a ‘considerable’ portion of metals used in printed circuit boards, rarer metals like neodymium account for less than 1% of materials used per device. ‘We need to carefully map exactly what’s in there,’ Dr Connemann told delegates gathered at Aachen University.

The laser technology specialist lamented that the exchange for information between the recycling sector and manufacturing industry is ‘still very limited’. Waiting for this to change would likely be a waste of time.

Best-in-class technology

Relying on ‘key technology’ would be wise, said Dr Connemmann in his introduction of the EUR 5.2 million EU-funded ADIR project. It revolves around a system of three machines; the first machine opens the gadgets, machine 2 scans them, and machine 3 separates all materials accordingly.

The recycling prototype thus combines automated disassembly, image processing, robotic handling, pulsed power technology, 3D laser measurement, real-time laser material identification (to detect materials), laser processing (to access components, to selectively unsolder these; to cut off parts of a printed circuit board), and automatic separation into different sorting fractions.

This smart sorting method could prove to be a breakthrough for those materials with high economic importance and significant supply risk such as tantalum, rare earth elements, germanium, cobalt, palladium, gallium and tungsten.

An ‘attractive’ option?

‘Our tests so far have shown that it is not yet economically viable for small devices like mobile phones to be processed, but this sorting technique is an attractive option for treating bigger printed circuit boards, such as the ones present in laptops,’ Dr Connemann reported.

The innovative e-scrap project will be concluded in August, next year. By then, the team at Fraunhofer Institute is confident the system will be able to tackle smartphones too so as to maximise ‘next generation urban mining’.

A closer look at cutting-edge sorting solutions will be featured in Recycling International’s May issue.

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