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Proceedings of the International Symposium on

Sustainable Systems and Technologies, v2 (2014)


Recycling of Liquid Crystal Displays for Maximum Resource Recovery
Fu Zhao Purdue University, fzhao@purdue.edu
Adam Lagro Purdue University, alagro@purdue.edu
Gamini Mendis Purdue University, gmendis@purdue.edu
Carol Handwerker Purdue University, carolh@purdue.edu
Abstract Hundreds of millions of liquid crystal displays (LCDs) will reach their end of life in the
next few years, and most of them have cold cathode fluorescent lamps as the backlights. The
backlight lamps contain mercury, which makes shredding the entire unit cost prohibitive since
special facilities are needed to avoid mercury release. The mercury containing lamps are
located deep in the display panel, and enclosed in the metal frame. This slows down the
dismantling process. Currently in the U.S. recyclers are lacking suitable equipment and tools
that can speed up the recycling process to make it more profitable. To address this challenge,
a research team at Purdue University has developed a four-step procedure for LCD monitor
disassembling: 1) case opening, 2) circuit boards detaching, 3) backlight unit and screen
assembly separating, and 4) liquid crystal removal and collecting. Appropriate tools for these
steps have been designed and fabricated. All the tools can be readily built using low-cost tools
available on the market. Using the tools developed the team was able to limit the total
disassembling time to less than 4 minutes. Under current market conditions and commodity
prices an average LCD monitor with a screen size of 14-18 inches, which represent more than
90% of LCD monitors collected has a breakeven disassembling time in the range of 3 to 5
minutes for a small to medium size e-waste recycler. To maximize recycler profit and resource
efficiency, it is recommended that future efforts be focused on: 1) tool optimization for shorter
disassembling time; 2) tool durability testing and improvement; 3) system integration; and 4)
identifying niche applications of components and materials recovered. In theory similar
procedure can be developed for LCD TVs. However, the backlights in LCD TVs are usually
less protected and more fragile, which brings addition challenges to the recycling process.
Proceedings of the International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technologies (ISSN 2329-9169) is
published annually by the Sustainable Conoscente Network. Melissa Bilec and Jun-Ki Choi, co-editors.
ISSSTNetwork@gmail.com.
Copyright 2014 by Fu Zhao, Adam Lagro, Gamini Mendis, Carol Handwerker Licensed under CC-BY 3.0.
Cite as:
Recycling of Liquid Crystal Displays for Maximum Resource Recovery Proc. ISSST, Fu Zhao, Adam Lagro,
Gamini Mendis, Carol Handwerker. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1194888. v2 (2014).
Recycling of Liquid Crystal Displays for Maximum Resource Recovery
Introduction
The market for flat screen liquid crystal displays (LCDs) grew rapidly during the 90s. LCDs are
now the dominating display technology for computer monitors and TVs, replacing cathode-ray
tubes (CRTs). Worldwide LCD TV sales in 2010 reached more than 170 million units,
accounting for more than 70% of the market share [1], while the global market for computer
monitors is predicted to exceed 210 million units by 2013, with more than 90% being LCDs [2].
LCD TVs manufactured before 2009 almost exclusively used cold cathode fluorescent lamps
(CCFL) as backlights.
LCDs typically have a lifespan of 25,00050,000 hours. However, due to rapid technology
advances the actual lifetime of a LCD monitor and LCD TV is much shorter. A significant
amount of LCD monitors manufactured 4-5 years ago have already shown up in waste streams,
along with a small quantity of LCD TVs. In the next few years, it is expected hundreds of millions
of CCFL backlit LCDs will retire each year. To date, 25 states have passed legislation
mandating statewide e-waste recycling, covering 65% of the population of the U.S. [3]. End of
life treatment of CCFL backlit LCDs presents some unique challenges. As shown in Figure 1, a
LCD monitor includes the front frame, back cover, circuit boards (power and controller) with
shielding, and a metal frame enclosing the liquid crystal screen subassembly with a driver circuit
and the backlight unit. The backlight unit includes a plastic frame, fluorescent tubes (of 2-5 mm
diameter), a PMMA light guide, a diffuser, a reflector, and a protection layer. Since the backlight
lamps contain mercury (in general, each lamp could have up to 5 mg mercury), shredding the
entire unit will be cost prohibitive since special facilities are needed to avoid mercury release.
This leaves manual dismantling the only option. Unfortunately, the mercury containing lamps
are located deep in the display panel, and enclosed in the metal frame. To open the metal frame
and remove the lamps safely extreme care has to be taken as the lamps are very fragile. This
slows down the dismantling process significantly and when labor costs are high the process is
not profitable. Due to the current state of LCD dismantling, it is not a surprise that the e-waste
recyclers we surveyed around the U.S. all agree that recycling LCDs in an environmentally
conscious and cost effective manner represents a significant challenge currently faced by the
industry.
Figure 3. Components of a LCD monitor.
F. Zhao et al.
Goals. During the past several years, there have been efforts in developing recycling
technologies for retired LCDs, all of which have been carried out in the E.U. [4-7]. Although
relevant, these technologies may not be suitable for the U.S. where the recyclers may not be
able to charge (or at significantly lower level) a tipping fee. In the U.S., LCD monitors have piled
up in the warehouse of some recyclers. For recyclers that do take apart LCD monitors, manual
disassembly is used and it takes about 10 minutes to complete one unit. At some recycling
facilities aggressive operations e.g. bending and smashing are used which may break the lamps
and expose workers to mercury. In addition, the liquid crystal assembly is left untouched and
sent to incinerator. The goal of this project is to develop proof of concepts equipment and tools
that can be used to quickly disassemble LCDs to recover and remove valuable and toxic
components. Under current market conditions and commodity prices an average LCD monitor
with a screen size of 14-18 inches (which represent more than 90% of LCD monitors collected)
has a breakeven disassembling time 3 to 5 minutes for a small to medium size e-waste recycler
(See Table 1 for values recovered from a typical monitor). Therefore, as a starting point the
target disassembling time is set to be 5 minutes.
Table 1. Recovery Values of a Typical LCD Monitor.
Average weight (lb) Market value ($/lb) Recovery value ($)
Steel 2.88 0.79 2.26
Mixed plastics 3.70 0.19 0.68
Wire and cable 0.06 0.93 0.05
Screen driver circuit 0.19 6.56 1.25
Other circuit boards 0.74 4.28 3.19
Backlight lamps 2-4 pieces -$0.40/piece -1.20
Recovery value total $6.23
Disassembling Procedure and Tools
After exploring many ideas and options, the following approach is selected as the most
promising solution: first, the outer plastic casing is removed; second, the circuit boards are
detached; third, the metal casing containing the backlight and screen assembly is opened; and
finally, the screen itself is separated to remove the liquid crystal. Details of the four steps and
the tools developed are provided in the following sections.
Removing plastic casing. For typical LCD monitors, two fastener types are used to constrain the
plastic outer casing. Screws are used to attach the back of the casing to a metal inner housing,
and injection molded snaps hold the front of the casing to the back. Because of the sheer
number of screw positions and different snap geometry used across LCD monitor designs, a
universal tool is highly desired. In current practice, recyclers often use standard Philips bits
with a power screwdriver. In the best case situation, this is the fastest option. However, during
disassembly screws can often strip. In order to prevent this from impeding disassembly of the
monitor, a tool is developed to be used in the case of stripped screws. The tool (shown in
Figure 2a) is similar to a hollow drill bit and consists of a cutting bit and a live center. The
geometry of the live center allows the cutting bit to be centered over both external screws as
well as those inside a screw boss. When used, the cutter removes a circle of material directly
surrounding the screw head. This will detach the back cover of the monitor from the screw post
holding it in place.
Recycling of Liquid Crystal Displays for Maximum Resource Recovery
After the screws are removed, the plastic casing is still held together by injection molded snaps.
A cutting tool was developed to remove material from the perimeter of the casing. Once a
complete cut is made, the two halves of the monitor casing can be separated without
disengaging the snaps. An oscillating cutter is mounted on a workbench so the blade sits above
a work surface (see Figure 2b). The tool was modified based on a SKIL 1400-02 Multi-Tasker
2.0A Oscillating Tool Kit. This allows the cut to be at a uniform height around the casing of the
monitor. In addition, a fence provides the ability to adjust depth of cut.
Figure 2: LCD Outer Casing Removal Tools.
Detaching circuit boards. After removing the outer casing, the unit is then transferred down
the workbench for circuit boards to be removed. A metal structure covers circuit boards within
the monitor to provide structural support as well as electrical shielding. This structure is
generally held in place with a small number of machine screws. The current method (i.e. using
standard Philips bits with a power screwdriver) for opening the metal structure offers little room
for improvement. However, after removing this metal structure, improvement opportunities exist
for detaching the circuit boards.
Figure 3: Circuit Board Detaching Tool.
The circuit boards are usually fastened to the internal metal housing with a large number of
machine screws. To improve the speed of the removal, a tool was designed to break the board
material (fiberglass) surrounding the screw. The tool (see Figure 3) is put over the head of a
screw and struck with a hammer. The screw boss supporting the circuit board and the edge of
the tool function as a set of dies, causing the board material to shear off around the screw head.
In addition to this, the circuit board removal tool has an integrated pry bar. This reduces the
changeover time between shearing the board material, and removing the board from the
standoffs. In the event of an incomplete break, the pry bar will allow the operator to fully remove
the board manually.
a
b
a b
Monitor casing
cutter
board
tool
F. Zhao et al.
Separating backlight unit and screen assembly. After removal of the circuit boards, a metal
housing enclosing the backlight unit and screen assembly is exposed. This assembly is
commonly held together with stamped sheet metal snaps, tape, and a limited number of screws.
Because the snaps do not require significant force to disengage, a common pry tool is suitable
for separation of these components. After opening the metal housing, the backlight bulbs can be
removed and stored in a container. When enough bulbs have been accumulated they will be
sent to a certified waste handling facility for disposal. The filter set, light guide, and diffuser are
collected and sorted for sale. The driver circuit usually has higher gold content than other circuit
boards recovered and should be separated and sold as high-quality boards.
Removing liquid crystal. Liquid crystals, especially those used in earlier LCD monitors, may
pose environmental risks if released [8]. To allow the screen assembly to be safely used in other
applications (e.g. as filler materials) or safely disposed, the liquid crystals must be removed first.
It should be noted that a powerful scrubber is needed if the whole screen panel is sent for
incineration since at high temperature PAHs may generate from liquid crystals [9]. As shown in
Figure 1, the liquid crystals are filled between two layers of glass with a thickness of around
1mm. Glass of this thickness is quite fragile. The panel is held together by a lip of epoxy that
runs the perimeter of the panel. The epoxy turns out to be very recalcitrant against solvent.
However, preliminary experiments suggest that the edge can be easily cut off using an office
paper trimmer, while leaving the remaining of the glass panels untouched (Figure 4). After that,
minimal force is required to fully separate the panel. The only issue here is that the cutter of the
common paper trimmer may not have enough hardness and could be worn out soon.
Figure 4. Sheared screen panel (a) and glass panels separated after shearing (b).
Separating the panel exposes the liquid crystal layer. Several commonly used solvents,
including ethanol, methanol, acetone, toluene, and hexane, have been tested for their capability
of dissolving liquid crystal. It was found that all of these solvents were quite effective based on
visual inspection. Due to safety and toxicity consideration, ethanol is preferred over other
solvents for liquid crystal removal. Research is now undergoing to identify methods that can
quantify the liquid crystal removal efficiency. Methods under consideration include TGA (thermal
gravimetric analysis), HPLC, and GC-MS.
Results and Discussion.
Following the 4-step procedure and using the tools developed, the team was able to
disassemble one LCD monitor within 4 minutes. All the tools can be readily built using low-cost
tools available on the market. Therefore, it is safe to argue that proof of concept has been
a b
Recycling of Liquid Crystal Displays for Maximum Resource Recovery
achieved. Figure 5 shows the breakdown of the average time trial results. Experimental trials
suggest that the disassembling time can be shortened further by process and tool optimization.
The current LCD case cutter only has one oscillating cutting edge (Figure 2), which takes
around 1 minute to cut open the case. One solution to this issue is to use wider cutters and/or
multiple cutting edges. It will also help if cutting can be performed on two adjacent sides of the
LCD monitor simultaneously. For the circuit board detaching tool (Figure 3), a hand hammer is
used. A new design could be pursued to use electricity to drive the detaching tool or at least an
electric hammer. This will reduce the stress on the workers and improve productivity. Similarly,
the office paper trimmer used to remove the edge of the screen panel can be modified to
include two cutters perpendicular to each other. The disassembly time can be further shorten
through system integration i.e. have all the steps completed in one workstation.
Figure 5. Breakdown of the Disassembling Time for an Average LCD Monitor.
As shown in Table 1, the recovery value from a LCD monitor is quite low. More profit could be
generated if niche applications could be identified for components recovered during
disassembling. As part of the Phase II efforts, the team will search for potential uses of the
screen panel as a whole or as small pieces. In addition, the light guide in the backlight unit is
made of high purity PMMA. There may exist a better use than simply selling it as a raw material.
Although only a small amount of LCD TV units are showing up in waste streams now, it is
expected that the number will go up significantly in the near future. However, the biggest
challenge here is that for LCD TVs the backlight lamps are more fragile and are not well
protected so extreme care has to be taken when removing them. In principle the tools
developed for monitors could work for TVs but likely modifications are necessary.
Conclusion.
Using the tools developed the team was able to limit the total disassembling time to less than 5
minutes, the breakeven time suggested by e-waste recyclers. All the tools can be readily built
using low-cost tools available on the market. The disassembling time can be shortened further
after optimization.
Acknowledgements. This work is supported by a US EPA P3 Phase I grant (#835327). Alyssa
Martin, David Zelinka, Jili Liu, Sagar Sinha, and Mike Owen from Purdue University and Dari
Guijosa from Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette, IN also contributed to the project.
F. Zhao et al.
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