Jet sensors help sort waste

Wednesday, 15 March, 2006

Advanced sensors originally designed for fast jet aircraft and battle tanks have been used to develop a new machine that can automatically identify and sort recyclable domestic waste.

Scientists and engineers from the United Kingdom's QinetiQ company have developed a highly automated machine that is able to sort high volumes of recyclable domestic rubbish.

The company, one of Europe's largest science and technology organisations, says its machine is designed to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill, thus helping local authorities - anywhere - to become more environmentally friendly.

Its spokesman explained: "Designed to help local authorities and waste management companies recover materials cost effectively from kerbside collections, QinetiQ's high-throughput demonstrator helps gain the most value and purity from various plastic, metallic and composite packaging collections. The integrated nature of this system means that it costs around the same as competitive systems when configured for facilities requiring three material separations but becomes proportionately cheaper for more material types."

The spokesman continued: "Fewer people are required to run it and less land is required to establish a facility than for a plant using traditional equipment. An added benefit is that health and safety issues associated with the close proximity of employees to waste are avoided because of the level of automation."

QinetiQ's Stephen Takel said: "In order to reclaim many of the more valuable materials from kerbside collections, most recyclable waste is currently hand sorted [and] which is a slow, time-consuming, costly and sometimes a potentially dangerous activity. By automating this process, a materials reclamation operation can run 24 hours, seven days a week, delivering a calculated capacity of over 36,000 tonnes per year, resulting in a highly reliable, cost-effective, multi-material sorting solution that should greatly assist local councils in meeting recycling targets."

The demonstrator machine integrates many standard, commercially available components - including conveyors and hoppers - but the secret of its success is the introduction of unique sensing, classification and control devices that until now have been reserved for military use.

At the feed preparation stage, kerbside collected waste is automatically and evenly supplied at a suitable speed for sophisticated military sensors to identify the shape, position and type of each item of material on the moving conveyor.

The manufacturers have used a broadband colour camera, hyperspectral imager, metal detecting array and data fusion and classification computer software to carry out this identification work and classify the rubbish. These items are then individually tracked along the conveyor until they reach the appropriate collection bin, where a series of compressed air ejectors transfer them into the containers.

The system is currently programmed to identify materials such as Tetrapak, ferrous and non-ferrous metals and a range of plastics, including PET, HDPE, PVC, PP and PS. The patented sensors are also capable of identifying a range of other materials, including glass, so it would be easy to introduce more sorting stations and program the machine to handle the additional types of material.

With development work on the new demonstrator machine now complete, QinetiQ is seeking commercial partners to take on the fabrication and installation of such systems overseas.

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