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Urban mining laser project to recover resources from old electronics

A consortium of laser developers, automation firms and metal recycling experts are combining laser technology, modern image processing, and robotics to produce an automated urban mining solution for the disassembly, separation and recovery of valuable raw materials from used electronic devices.

Contactless exposure and unsoldering of circuit board components by means of laser radiation in a recycling process of the 'ADIR' project. (Credit: Fraunhofer ILT)

The work is being done as part of ADIR, a €6.6 million Horizon 2020-funded project coordinated by the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT that aims to achieve the sustainable, practical recovery of resources from old electronics. ‘Strategically, it’s also about reducing the EU’s dependence on resources and expensive material imports,’ said project manager Dr Cord Fricke-Begemann from Fraunhofer ILT. Launched in September 2015, the project is scheduled to run until 2019 and comprises nine project partners from four countries.

Conventional material recycling frequently relies on bulk material flow solutions, which use shredding and pyrometallurgical processes. They focus primarily on recovering precious metals such as copper, gold and silver, but are unable to recover other rare materials. The ADIR project explores the feasibility of new technologies to be able to procure these rarer substances for the next generation of urban mining.

‘Elements such as tantalum and tungsten, or rare earths such as neodymium, will continue to play an important role in the industrial manufacture of high-tech electronics,’ explained project coordinator Professor Reinhard Noll from Fraunhofer ILT. ‘Our new reverse production approach will ensure that we fully exploit the potential that so far has gone untapped.’

An automated, flexible solution could enable the modern recycling of these materials found in urban environments – particularly in old cell phones and printed circuit boards. The ADIR consortium is therefore designing a machine that incorporates laser technology, robotics, modern image processing and information technology at different stages of the recovery process.

Lasers can be used for a range of tasks in urban mining – from performing 3D measurements and real-time identification of constituent elements to contact-free uncovering and desoldering of electronic components.

After analysing the requirements for materials handling and testing various recycling methods, the ADIR consortium began developing the new solution. It first optimised the individual steps for sorting certain components and further processing after each stage on a laboratory scale, and is now developing suitable software and hardware modules that can be combined to form a machine.

A demonstrator will be built in a recycling plant in 2018 to enable an experimental validation in an industrial setting, focusing on efficiency and high-level usability as top priorities, according to the consortium.

In February 2016, Fraunhofer ILT also launched the sister project i-Recycle, scheduled to run until 2019. Its goal is to collect old, no longer used cell phones from the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft for the ADIR project and to make them available for testing and research and development work.

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