New technologies recover insulated wire
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There’s a great deal of value in the copper conductors inside small diameter insulated wires. The problem has always been how to get it out – profitably. For most of its history the solution for small gauge wire was the landfill. Unfortunately, in most cases it still is. But things are changing quickly.

Piles of insulated copper wire that have been recovered from auto shredder residue can add up to big profits. The difficulty lies in sorting and collecting it.

Throughout most of the EU countries, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations are emerging that set disposal limitation targets for e-waste going into landfills. This initiative created a wave of new technologies that are now breaking on American shores. In the United Sates there are also growing concerns over e-waste going into landfills, or being exported as potentially dangerous cargo if not recycled properly in the destined country. In response, electronic manufacturers, regulators and recyclers are looking for more productive ways of separating copper from insulation to create two fractions, thus avoiding the tipping point.

“Up until the big crash we couldn’t make equipment fast enough,” said Shelly Zelunka, a partner in Gensco Equipment, a major manufacturer of recycling equipment, including a large line of wire stripping and granulating machines. “But as copper prices have recovered we have seen an improvement in our equipment sales. I think we’ve bottomed out and I expect continued growth.”

No question that equipment used for recovering copper from wire and cable has been hit hard by the recession, but as copper prices have rebounded the equipment manufacturers interviewed for this article seemed mildly optimistic.

When copper was over $4 a pound everybody was looking to strip as much as possible. Even a modest investment in a bench top stripper made sense and smaller processors were reaping profits themselves rather than sending raw wire out to an automated chopping operation.

But whether recovering a few pounds of copper, or looking to extract tons of insulated wire from auto shredder residue (ASR) or e-waste, having the right tools and technology to do the job is critical to profitability.

The technology for wire stripping and granulating equipment is basic. There have been incremental improvements, however, particularly in controls and reduced energy consumption, and in the development of compact granulator-separator-air blowers combined in one machine. Competition among the many manufacturers is fierce. In view of the economy, there may be some good bargains now to be found at all price points.

In recovering insulated copper wire from ASR, there’s a technological revolution occurring based on induction and near-infrared sensors that is just beginning to deliver additional revenue for auto shredders and holds future promise for e-waste processors.

In May, the Wendt Corporation, a manufacturer of automobile shredders and downstream recovery systems, completed the first installation of its new wire recovery technology at a United States shredding plant.

Due to Wendt confidentiality agreements, the name and location of the auto shredder cannot be disclosed, but it is a large multi-shredding operation in a western state. The quantity of insulated copper recovered by the new system seems unprecedented. “Less than one percent of insulated wire will remain in the trash stream with our new Finder. Interesting thing is, every visitor that I have taken to see this facility has purchased the equipment,” said Bill Close, sales engineer for Wendt.

Close has reason to be happy. He has sold three more systems incorporating ten of the new Finders.™ He said his phone never stops ringing with inquiries.

Wendt is not the only company deploying this new generation of sensors to recover insulated wire from ASR. Wendt is selling its systems outright to American auto shredders while SGM Magnetics, based in northern Italy, is busy licensing its new wire sensing equipment to United States auto shredders and metal recovery companies.

Companies that specialize in collecting light ASR fraction and process it for non-ferrous in their own plants may be using similar technology, but for obvious reasons, these processes are often closely guarded secrets.

How the new Wendt system came into being is a result of unintended consequences. In August 2007, Wendt engineers were conducting a plastics recovery study for one of its American shredder customers. For the test they used infrared equipment developed by TiTech GmbH and they noticed that they were able to concentrate wire fractions. Wendt speculated that if they were able to combine near infrared (NIR) with a metal sensor it would be even more discriminatory in producing a wire fraction. Working closely with TiTech, Wendt developed and brought its new PolyFinder™ to the United States in April 2008.

Wendt uses two types of TiTech sensors to scalp the wires from the flow. In one pass, wire is recovered from the waste stream with metal detection equipment called the Finder, an inductive sorter tuned at a very high sensitivity that uses TiTech’s SUPPIXX object recognition image processing to detect and separate the smallest metal particles. Mixed metals then flow across Wendt’s PolyFinder sorter that uses a NIR scanner combined with metal detection to identify various types of polymer insulations and the copper inside the insulation. “If we find a piece of PVC, for example, that also has a metal signal, we know it’s an insulated wire and we take it out of the flow,” said Close. Wendt claims that the recovered insulated copper wire is very clean with minimal stainless steel in small enough sizes not to damage wire chopping machinery.

Wendt is the exclusive distributor for this TiTech technology for ASR applications in North America. TiTech, headquartered in Olso, Norway has its main manufacturing facility in Germany. TiTech developed the world’s first NIR sensor for waste sorting applications and today has more than 2000 TiTech units operating in 25 countries.

Wendt not only builds its shredders and downstream equipment domestically, but is now also manufacturing the Finder and PolyFinder machines in the States. Wendt imports the TiTech electronics and builds them into the Finder and PolyFinder conveyor housings to American specs, installs and services the equipment. “The cost of PolyFinder technology is just slightly more than other finder-type technology and the payback on the investment can be as little as six to eight months,” Close estimated.

TiTech’s Finder is also helping large e-waste recyclers liberate mixed non-ferrous metals, including wire, from plastics and fiberglass, but thus far the PolyFinder is not being used to discriminate a purely insulated wire fraction. The PolyFinder, however, has been demonstrated in Germany with e-scrap shipped from America. “In maybe one or two years the PolyFinder will be used by e-scrap recyclers, because e-scrap is a much younger business than the automotive shredding industry and deals in relatively low volumes,” said Alex Wolf, sales engineer for TiTech’s North American market. “The Finder is capable of removing more than 97 percent of the mixed non-ferrous metals from plastics and fiberglass which includes wire,” Wolf claimed. Since 2006, TiTech has installed Finders at five major American e-scrap processing plants. “A Finder makes sense if you are processing a large volume. Usually we say you must have 1.5 million pounds or more per month running through your shredder for a Finder to have a payback of less than a year. You could potentially take that metals mix and run it over a PolyFinder to make a concentrate of insulated wires,” Wolf predicted.