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

EPA Contract Number: EPD15011
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: Richards, April
Phase: II
Project Period: November 1, 2014 through October 31, 2016
Project Amount: $300,000
RFA: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) - Phase II (2014) 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 United States and has been associated with major environmental damage overseas. Differential density sorting is expensive and is not very effective for sorting rare earth materials.
When properly sorted, there are a significant amount of valuable recyclable materials in e-waste. Recycling rates for e-waste currently are 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 upon economical approaches to recovering these valuable materials. E-waste contains a significant amount of rare earth elements, particularly neodymium and dysprosium, which are valuable and expected to increase in importance in the coming years.
The objective of the proposed Phase II research is to complete development of the technology successfully tested in the Phase I research. NRT has obtained commitments from two e-waste processors who are interested in participating in providing Phase III funding and hosting a Phase II prototype sorting unit.
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. Because many electronic devices contain rare earth elements separation and 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 this 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, and provide a stream of material rich in rare earth elements for mining operations.
The proposing firm is a major manufacturer of recycling equipment for the post-consumer plastics recycling industry and has received considerable interest in the development of a sorting system for sorting rare earth elements in e-waste plastics. Due to this interest, 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 I:

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