WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A new device designed to quickly and easily identify plastics so they can be sorted for recycling has been named one of the year's 100 most technologically significant products and processes by R&D Magazine.
The device, developed by a group of Purdue University researchers and manufactured by SpectraCode Inc. in Purdue's Industrial Research Park, may help to save billions of pounds of plastics that now are landfilled or incinerated every year, says Edward Grant, Purdue professor of chemistry and chief executive officer of SpectraCode.
"One of the primary obstacles in recycling today is the lack of sufficient means to avoid cross contamination during collection," Grant says. "Polymers of different composition are incompatible when melted together, and a ton of mixed plastic is a ton of garbage."
Purdue co-inventors sharing the award with Grant are Dor Ben-Amotz, professor of chemistry; Kenneth Haber, manager of the chemistry department's laser facility; Yanan Jiang, research scientist; and George Laurence, a senior from West Lafayette who is majoring in chemistry.
The R&D 100 Awards will be presented Sept. 24 during a special exhibit of the award-winning products at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.
The new device, called the RP-1 Polymer Identification System, may allow commercial and community recyclers to easily identify and sort a wide range of plastics, Grant says.
"For example, the device can be used to sort plastic components in cars, synthetic fiber resins in carpets, and a number of plastics used in the building and construction industry," he says. "It also can be used to sort plastic films, such as those found in dry cleaning bags, shrink wrap and packaging material."
Only a small fraction of these materials now are recycled, primarily because of difficulties in identifying and separating the various types of plastics, Grant says.
The SpectaCode device consists of a hand-held probe, which looks like a hair dryer, connected to a mobile console. The probe illuminates a solid object with a laser and collects the light scattered from the sample, much like a bar-code scanner.
"The device uses the principle of Raman spectroscopy to read the information encoded in the molecular structure of the plastic itself and thereby identify its chemical composition," Grant says.
When a sample is illuminated with the laser, it causes the sample's molecules to vibrate. The vibrations in turn cause the light to scatter in a pattern that is specific for each type of plastic. The scattered light is recorded and analyzed by a computer, which displays the result on a color monitor located on the console.
The entire identification cycle requires less than one second. Used with an automated system designed to trigger the probe when plastics are placed on a conveyor belt, the SpectraCode device is capable of identifying the chemical composition of plastic parts and scrap at rates of more than 100 pieces per second, or 500 tons per day, Grant says. That means it could be used to screen commercial and post-consumer waste in factories, warehouses, recycling centers and scrap yards, he says.
"The instrument is very easy to use because it has no moving parts, and it does not require precleaning or precise positioning of the plastic material," he says.
SpectraCode has installed RP-1 systems at two large-scale recycling facilities and in the Detroit Vehicle Recycling Development Center, a joint research facility of the Big Three automakers.
Ford Motor Co.'s automotive component operations, now know as Visteon, has supported development of the SpectraCode device and is using the product in its recycling efforts. The Environmental Protection Agency also provided funding for the research.
"We at Ford have a strong commitment to developing products that support recycling," says Bill Orr, manager of Ford worldwide vehicle recycle planning. "Today, at least 75 percent of the typical Ford vehicle is recyclable at the end of its working life, and we hope the RP-1 will help push that percentage higher."
Previous technologies for identifying dismantled materials were too slow and relied too much on operator accuracy, Orr says. "We expect this new technology to provide higher-quality resin at acceptable prices."
The new device also was part of Lincoln-Mercury's environmental exhibit at the 1998 North American International Auto Show.
SpectraCode, founded in 1994 by Ben-Amotz, Grant and Jiang, is an established manufacturer of Raman systems for laboratory analysis and industrial production. As full-time faculty members, Ben-Amotz and Grant play mainly advisory roles in the operation of the company.
"In some ways, I see my work at SpectraCode as a small extension of the job I do as an academic research director," Grant says. "Developing and marketing a technological product is similar to the process of generating new scientific knowledge and successfully selling it in the marketplace of ideas. The experience that I have gained at SpectraCode has made me a more effective, more relevant teacher and a better manager of resources for my graduate students."
Purdue undergraduates also have benefited from the university's connection with SpectraCode. Last semester, chemistry major Andrew Parker of Largo, Fla., conducted an undergraduate research project at SpectraCode to develop a new process for analyzing black plastics.
"It is exciting to do cutting-edge research and at the same time feel that your work has immediate industrial impact," Parker says. "There is a lot here that I have learned about the interface between science and business and how they support each other. This should give me an edge in the job market when I leave Purdue."
SpectraCode also has served as a laboratory for students from Purdue's Krannert Graduate School of Management. Last spring, second-year MBA students Brett Staker of Lafayette, Francois Callait of Albuquerque, N.M., and Stephen Schultz of Indianapolis analyzed the market for the RP-1 as a project for their management class. Summer students in a marketing strategy class studied the prospects for selling a portable variant of the RP-1 for other uses.
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