New technology in metal recycling

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In 2011 the Finnish company ZenRobotics presented the first fully automated robot for sorting waste. By using metal detectors, 3D laser technology and spectroscopic imaging, the precision of coin sorting has been greatly improved, paving the way for the entire recycling industry.

In 2014, the “Heavy Picker” was introduced, a product dedicated to recycling metals. Since then, the system has been continuously improved and optimized using AI. With the use of three robotic arms, the system can now perform up to 6000 sorting processes per hour. In comparison, an experienced manual sorter only handles 200 pickups per hour. Another advantage is that the “Heavy Picker” can be integrated seamlessly into existing systems or used as a stand-alone sorting line.

Scandinavia is among the main players in the innovation of new technologies in metal recycling. Norwegian society TOMRA, for example, has specialized in recycling aluminum waste. The importance of this raw material was underlined by the Covid pandemic, when aluminum became a scarce resource around the world. As a result, aluminum producers increasingly depend on high quality recycled materials. And this is where TOMRA promises to deliver with its X-TRACT series.

The system uses an electric x-ray source which generates broadband radiation. This radiation penetrates the material and hits an X-ray camera which uses two independent sensor lines with different spectral sensitivities. In this way, the atomic density of materials can be identified. This technology contributes to a reduction in the purchasing costs of the raw material, since, on the one hand, the materials no longer have to have a too strict composition and, on the other hand, less material than usual is processed. As a result, the scrap can be bought at a lower price with an inferior quality, and then cleaned.

Its German subsidiary TOMRA-Sorting introduced in 2018 a new laser object detection (LOD) system for its “AutoSort” and “Finder” product line, increasing the detection accuracy of existing equipment by an additional 4%. Among other applications, LOD has also been designed to separate black rubber, glass and plastics from non-ferrous zorba and zurik products, turning these products into more valuable income streams while reducing the number of manual pickers.

Austrian company Red wave has used XRF technology for years to determine the chemistry of a sample. Initially, the technology was mainly used in sorting glass – with the introduction of Redwave XRF / C, a stand-alone solution for sorting metals was developed.

Compared to other technologies, humidity, coloring and surface impurities have no negative influence on metal detection. The sorting processes, using advanced software algorithms, produce high purity metal fractions, which can be sold directly and profitably. This innovative sorting solution has already been successfully implemented in various sorting lines and plants around the world.

Since the turn of the millennium, portable and flexible devices based on XRF technology have been widely used as a flexible and economical solution in metal recycling. Over the years, the technology has improved dramatically and is now the primary portable instrument when it comes to stainless steel, high temperatures, and red metals. However, since the introduction of portable LIBS devices in 2015 – they use a rapid chemical analysis technique with a short laser pulse – an alternative has been implemented, especially for the analysis of light metals such as aluminum or magnesium. Thermo Scientific introduced the ‘NitonApollo’ in 2019, which paves the way for individual and flexible applications. In particular, recyclers facing heavy loads or space constraints rely on laser guns to analyze metals for their composition in seconds. Another major advantage of this technology is that no sampling is necessary and that the measurement can be carried out without contact.

According to studies, the demand for metallic raw materials will increase rapidly in the coming years. Aluminum alone will require an additional 360 million metric tonnes of raw materials over the next 20 years to meet industry demand. Above all, key industries of the future, such as the electric automobile sector, depend on the supply of light metals. In the new era of climate change, metal recycling is becoming more and more important, but it also offers great economic opportunities. For example, recycling rare metals from electronic waste is thirteen times cheaper than extracting them from mines, according to the American Chemical Society. By using new methods as well as artificial intelligence, metal recycling is becoming a key player in the fight against global warming.


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