Automated Identification and Sorting of Rare Earth Elements in an E-Waste Recycling Stream

EPA Contract Number: EPD13036
Title: Automated Identification and Sorting of Rare Earth Elements in an E-Waste Recycling Stream
Investigators: Rich, John T.
Small Business: National Recovery Technologies Inc.
EPA Contact: Manager, SBIR Program
Phase: I
Project Period: June 17, 2013 through December 16, 2013
Project Amount: $79,968
RFA: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) - Phase I (2013) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) , SBIR - Innovation in Manufacturing


Electronic waste (e-waste) is one of the most rapidly growing waste problems worldwide. Improper handling of e-waste results in vast amounts of toxic waste being sent to landfill and leaching into the water supply. Due to these concerns, e-waste recycling is a rapidly growing industry. Unfortunately, most current e-waste recycling processes rely on either manual hand sorting or differential density sorting methods. Manual hand sorting is expensive in the U.S. and has been associated with major environmental damage overseas. Differential density sorting is expensive and is ineffective at sorting rare earth elements.
When properly sorted, there is a significant amount of valuable recyclable materials in e-waste. Recycling rates for e-waste are currently low in part because e-waste recyclers charge a fee for recycling in order to make a profit. Legislative action in many states may increase this rate, but the long term viability of e-waste recycling depends on economical approaches to recovering these valuable materials. Rare earth elements in e-waste plastics often are difficult to recover in part because of their presence in minute amounts in the larger e-waste stream.
The objective of the proposed Phase I research is to determine the feasibility of developing a high-speed, automated sorting system for sorting materials containing rare earth elements in an e-waste recycling stream. This automated sorting system would allow recyclers of e-wastes to more efficiently process e-waste metals and recover the precious rare earth elements, thereby making recycling more cost-effective.
A significant increase in the anticipated amount of e-waste has been observed over the last few years and is expected to continue as the time between introduction and obsolescence becomes continually smaller. Furthermore, electronics are becoming significantly more dependent upon dwindling supplies of rare earth elements. Because e-waste electronics contain a significant amount of rare earth elements, recovery of these materials is crucial for the long-term viability of environmentally friendly recycling of e-wastes. It is anticipated that upon the successful completion of Phase I and Phase II research, the application of the technology will improve the costs of recycling e-wastes, improving the rate at which e-wastes are recycled.
The proposing firm is a major manufacturer of recycling equipment for the post-consumer plastics recycling industry. The proposed technology is expected to have a strong market in the e-waste recycling industry.

Supplemental Keywords:

e-waste, recycle, rare earth elements

Progress and Final Reports:

  • Final Report
  • SBIR Phase II:

    Automated Identification and Sorting of Rare Earth Elements in an E-waste Recycling Stream  | Final Report