New technologies recover insulated wire
by Mike Breslin
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.
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
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.