For Immediate Release
Now, many governments around the world are worried that their citizens
might become modern-day Romans because of the heaps of trashed electronics
Such "e-waste" -- discarded computers, televisions, cell phones,
audio equipment and batteries -- leach lead and other substances that
eventually can seep into groundwater supplies. Just one color computer
monitor or television can contain up to eight pounds of lead. An estimated
12 million tons of e-waste may soon be jamming American landfills, according
to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Concern has reached such a level that some European countries are forcing
manufacturers to take back discarded electronics, and in the United States,
California and Massachusetts have banned their disposal in municipal solid
waste landfills. But what then?
A study under way at the Georgia Institute of Technology -- in cooperation
with the Pollution Prevention
Assistance Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) and the National Science Foundation
-- may offer a model for other states and nations.
It is a "reverse production" system that designs infrastructure
to recover and reuse every material contained within e-wastes -- metals
such as lead, copper, aluminum and gold, and various plastics, glass and
wire. Such a "closed loop" manufacturing and recovery system
offers a win-win situation for everyone -- less of the Earth will be mined
for raw materials, and groundwater will be protected, researchers explain.
But this simple concept requires a lot of brand new thinking, says Jane
Ammons, a professor in the School
of Industrial and Systems Engineering and a governor-appointed member
of the Georgia Computer Equipment Disposal and Recycling Council. She
and colleague Matthew
Realff, an associate professor in the School
of Chemical Engineering, are devising methods to plan reverse production
systems that will collect e-trash, tear apart devices ("de-manufacture
it") and use the components and materials again -- all while making
the process economically viable.
Though this system is being designed for Georgia, its application elsewhere
has sparked interest nationally and internationally, the researchers say.
Officials in Taiwan and Belgium have consulted with the researchers, as
have several multi-national electronics and logistics firms. Also, the
researchers' work on carpet recycling was used in testimony to Congress
and helped in developing an industry coalition that has the goal of diverting
25 percent of carpet from landfills by 2012.
The project is building on other research that Ammons and Realff are conducting. Their fundamental work in reverse production systems has been repeatedly funded by the National Science Foundation. Ammons' related research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as one of four ADVANCE chaired professors at Georgia Tech.
ADVANCE is a program to improve the career success of women faculty in
science and engineering, and the chaired professors are serving as mentors
for younger women faculty in their schools. Also, Ammons and Realff are
applying their findings from other studies to the e-waste project. For
example, they have modeled the regional and national infrastructure necessary
for cost-effective and environmentally beneficial collection and recycling
of carpet to extract nylon fiber, caprolactam monomer and other products.
"It's a matter of seeing a waste as a resource," Ammons says.
Key to their approach is the ongoing development of a mathematical model
to predict the economic success of recovery efforts. Modeling is necessary
given the uncertainty inherent in a host of variables -- quantities, locations,
types and conditions of old parts, and numerous aspects of transportation
(distance, costs of fuel, labor, insurance, etc.). Ammons and Realff have
involved experts, many of them from Georgia recycling and salvaging businesses,
to probe the complicated interplay between manufacturing, de-manufacturing
"Strong leverage comes from our new mathematical models," Ammons
says. "They allow us to ask really good questions while designing
the infrastructure for these systems."
Realff's expertise is the design and operation of processes that recover
the maximum amount possible of useable product from e-waste. He has devised
ways to separate metals, as well as different qualities of plastic from
crushed, ground-up components. Realff and his students measure density
and surface properties in novel ways. For example, they measure how far
pieces fly off a conveyer belt and how well air bubbles stick to them.
This information enables more accurate representations of recycling tasks
to be incorporated into the strategic models and the synthesis of lower-cost
alternatives, Realff explains.
"For chemical engineers, this is a challenging problem that has
not been widely studied," he says. "It's exciting. We are creating
a new architecture for separation systems." From this work, new industries
and an infrastructure can be created to recover value not only from e-waste,
but also from automobiles and other durable goods, Realff adds.
The reverse production systems research project has also delivered a
wonderful learning opportunity for Ammons' and Realff's students, who
come from many countries to study at Georgia Tech. Many of these students
are planning to take the methodology back home to help plan recycling
and recovery systems in their countries.
Now into the second and final year of the Georgia project, Ammons, Realff
and their students are tweaking and testing their mathematical model (which
for some problems has required computers to determine more than 300,000
variables) by testing hundreds of "what-if" scenarios. The researchers
are continuing their collaboration under a new grant from the National
Science Foundation; it will help broaden their model to other reverse
production system problems.
Meanwhile, the DNR is eagerly awaiting the final results of the study.
"This work is tremendously important. E-waste poses potential serious environmental problems if it continues to go into landfills," says Chuck Boelkins, a DNR resource recovery specialist. The Georgia recovery system "may become a national model. It could be key to the future of responsible environmental management."
RESEARCH NEWS & PUBLICATIONS OFFICE
Georgia Institute of Technology
430 Tenth Street, N.W., Suite N-116
Atlanta, Georgia 30318 USA
TECHNICAL CONTACTS: Jane Ammons, School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (404-894-2364); E-mail: (email@example.com) or Matthew Realff, School of Chemical Engineering (404-894-1834); E-mail: (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WRITER: Renee Twombly