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Resources, Conservation and Recycling 45 (2005) 60–69

The recovery of recyclable materials from Waste


Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)
by using vertical vibration separation
Nusruth Mohabuth ∗ , Nicholas Miles
School of Chemical, Mining and Environmental Engineering, University of Nottingham,
Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK

Received 10 December 2004; received in revised form 7 February 2005; accepted 14 February 2005
Available online 11 April 2005

Abstract

In this article, the vertical vibration technique is described as it is used to separate a mixture of plastic
and bronze in water. When a mixture of two equally sized granular materials is vertically vibrated,
they often separate into two distinct layers. Plastic and bronze were used to mimic the situation of
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) materials. At low frequency, a bronze rich layer
is formed on top of a plastic layer, while at higher frequency the bronze remained sandwiched between
two layers of plastic. A similar result was obtained when equivalent size shredded WEEE materials
were vibrated. These results were compared with those in the plastic–bronze mixture. The WEEE
mixture separates into a copper rich layer on top. The observations and possible mechanisms of this
separation are discussed.
© 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Vibrated bed; WEEE; Separation process; Density segregation

1. Introduction

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) consists of a wide range of electronic
devices that can be classified into three groups, namely white goods, brown goods and
Information Technology (IT) scraps (Schäfer et al., 2003). White commodities are mainly

∗ Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: enxnbm@nottingham.ac.uk (N. Mohabuth), nick.miles@nottingham.ac.uk (N. Miles).

0921-3449/$ – see front matter © 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.resconrec.2005.02.001
N. Mohabuth, N. Miles / Resources, Conservation and Recycling 45 (2005) 60–69 61

Nomenclature
a amplitude (m)
f frequency of vibration
g acceleration due to gravity (m/s2 )
Γ ratio of vibrational to gravitational acceleration
ω angular frequency (s−1 )

large household appliances, such as fridges and cookers with a high metal content and
because of their size they have a relatively high collection quota of around 90%. In 1998,
an arising of 392,000 tonnes was recorded in the UK (ICER, 2000). The second group
is brown goods, which are household electrical entertainment appliances (CD Players,
TVs, camcorders, radios, etc.) of which there were 80,000 tonnes produced in 1998 in
the UK. Of these goods, only 50% were collected (ICER, 2000). Brown goods easily fit
into the household bins and are thus more conveniently disposed of with other domestic-
waste. As for the IT scraps, 357,000 tonnes were produced in 1998 and only 26% were
collected (ICER, 2000). Due to rapid technology changes, computers are now featuring as
a significant component in WEEE. It was estimated that in the United States, 20 million
computers became waste in 1998 within an overall E-waste of 5–7 million tonnes (Puckett
et al., 2002). WEEE makes up about 4% of the European municipal waste and is estimated
to be increasing three times faster than municipal waste (ICER, 2000).
The WEEE Directive 2002/96/EC will be enacted in September 2005. The focus of this
directive is about prevention of WEEE and its reduction through increasing reuse, recycling
and recovery of materials. The directive has set a target to recover 75% and to reuse and
recycle 65% by an average weight per appliance by December 2006. Therefore, there is
an urgent need to recover the maximum amount of recyclable material from WEEE, which
typically consists of ferrous metals (47%), plastics (22%), glass (6%) and non-ferrous metals
(4%) (ICER, 2000).
To recover valuable materials from WEEE, the feed material initially needs to be liberated
by mechanical processing so that the desirable fractions can be separated. Hammer mills
and shredders are the most commonly used communication devices to reduce WEEE to
finer fractions, thus, liberating the phases. Typical methods used to separate these liberated
materials include manual sorting, magnetic separation, eddy current separation and air table
sorting. Schäfer et al. (2003) reported that these techniques have shown limited efficiency
due to enormous loss of materials (Schäfer et al., 2003). For example, an eddy current
separator would separate non-ferrous metals. However, other metals can also be influenced
by the magnetic field and affect the purity of the end product. Since there is strict specification
for the reuse and recycling of the materials, efficient sorting is of great importance (Bledzki
et al., 2002).
WEEE materials, when reduced to finer grain sizes consist of non-uniform particles with
varying properties such as size, density, shape and particle resilience. Differences in particle
properties can be used to propagate a separation in vibrated system. In fact, wet and dry
vibration techniques have been widely used for separation for many years by the mineral
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industry. Here, techniques such as jigging have been used to process coal, iron ore and gold
(Nesbitt et al., 2004). With the varying materials constituent and grain sizes of the WEEE,
vertical vibration was considered as a potential separation technique.
It is well known that when granular materials are subjected to vibration segregation
occurs. This phenomenon has been studied by a number of researchers but the mechanisms
have not yet been fully understood (Rosato et al., 1987; Jullien and Meakin, 1992; Knight
et al., 1993; Duran, 2000; Duran et al., 1993,1994). The most common segregation is size
segregation, which is known as the “Brazil Nut Effect” (BNE), where the larger size particles
appear on top of smaller ones when subjected to vibration. Williams (1976) proposed four
mechanisms for size segregation: (i) trajectory segregation, (ii) percolation of fine particles,
(iii) rise of coarse particles on vibration and (iv) elutriation segregation. The Brazil Nut
Effect has been studied by using a single large particle, most commonly known as the intruder
particle, in a fine granular bed. It has been also observed that in some cases, a Reverse Brazil
Nut Effect occurs. Shinbrot and Muzzio (1998) reported that at high amplitude in a vibrated
bed a large heavy particle moves to the top of the bed but an equally large light particle
sinks to the bottom of the bed. However, this phenomenon remains unexplained.
When the bed vertical vibration is above a threshold amplitude (1.2 times the gravitational
acceleration), the bed is fluidised and the granulated particles move into a convection flow.
Convection was first reported by Faraday (1831) and was found to be an important driving
mechanism in the segregation process (Shinbrot and Muzzio, 1998). It was also one of the
major causes for density segregation (Burtally et al., 2003). This occurs due to differences
in the momentum between different density particles (Akiyama et al., 2000). Burtally et
al. (2002, 2003) have reported that a mixture of equal sized particles of bronze and glass
spheres segregate into two clear-cut layers under vertical vibration in the presence of air
due to differences in density. It was found that the denser materials, in this case bronze,
appeared on top of a layer of glass spheres, the lower density material. However, sandwich
separation and inverse segregation have also been observed depending on the frequency
and acceleration of vibration. During vertical vibration, the bed is also influenced by the
horizontal component of the fluid flow, which causes the bed to tilt (Faraday, 1831). This
is known as Faraday tilting.
The medium in which the granular materials are vibrated also influences the separation
process. Even though most of the studies carried out so far were in air, the medium can be
replaced by other fluids. Leaper et al. (2005) reported that replacing air by water at ambient
temperature increased the viscosity of the medium by 50 times. As a result, it is expected
to separate larger particles of about 1 mm diameter. These particles are seven times larger
than that would be separated in air (Leaper et al., 2005). Using water as the separation
medium also helps to eliminate the electrostatic effect, which is commonly observed in dry
separation after prolonged vibration. This may affect the quality of separation and should
be eliminated (Leaper et al., 2005).
Electrical and electronic equipment are identified as a high copper containing mass
stream (Schäfer et al., 2003). In this paper, bronze and plastic particles were used to mimic
the most common components of WEEE. Bronze has similar properties as copper and
plastics reflects other lighter materials that may be present in the WEEE. Recently, Burtally
et al. (2003) separated a mixture of bronze and glass in the size range 90–125 ␮m diameter.
However in this paper, coarser particle sizes, ranging from 250 to 400 ␮m, were used since
N. Mohabuth, N. Miles / Resources, Conservation and Recycling 45 (2005) 60–69 63

it was considered that WEEE materials would not be shredded to such fine size. To enhance
the separation water was used as the medium for separation.

2. Materials and methods

The present study was carried out using vertical vibration apparatus similar to the one in
the Nottingham Granular Dynamics Group, Physics and Astronomy, University of Notting-
ham, UK (Burtally et al., 2003). The apparatus consisted of two loud speakers vertically
mounted in a wooden framework, which were connected to a pair of accelerometers and an
amplifier in order to control the vibration. The whole assembly was attached to a massive
concrete block to prevent horizontal motion during vibration. The experiments were carried
out in a rectangular vessel of thickness 10 mm, height 40 mm and width 40 mm. The vessel
was aluminium framed and glass lined so that the behaviour of the materials could be easily
viewed. The glass box was then fixed by screws to the bottom of the metal frame in between
the two loud speakers.
To investigate the separation process, three sets of experiments were conducted. The
first two sets were carried out using combination of mixed plastic particles of mean density,
ρp = 1600 kg/m3 , and bronze spheres of density, ρb = 8900 kg/m3 . The mean diameter of
the mixture was 325 ␮m (size range, 250–400 ␮m). In the first set of experiments, a 75%
plastics:25% bronze by volume mixture was used and in the second a 50:50% plastic–bronze
mixture. To study the separation of copper in WEEE materials, a third set of experiments
was conducted on a sample of shredded WEEE materials consisting mainly of circuit boards
and electrical wiring. The WEEE scraps were obtained from Master Magnet Ltd. and were
in a wide range of shapes and sizes, ranging from 100 to 150 mm. They were gradually
reduced to smaller size fractions of 50, 25 and 10 mm. It should be noted that no glass was
present in the shredded mixture. This material was further shredded, sieved to produce a
fraction in the size range 250–400 ␮m, washed and dried before being placed into the cell.
For each set of experiments, the bed depth was maintained at about 20 mm to allow for
comparison.
The experiments were conducted under atmospheric pressure with vibrational frequency
ranging from 10 to 120 Hz and the dimensionless vibrational acceleration, Γ (Γ = aω2 /g,
where a is the amplitude of the oscillation, g the acceleration due to gravity and ω = 2πf,
is the angular frequency) in the range 2–10. The experiments were carried out in water at
ambient temperature with the rectangular vessel initially being filled with the dry materials
followed by water. The vessel was then shaken to mix the materials and to liberate air
bubbles. The level of water was adjusted to the top and the cell attached on the loud speaker.
The materials were expected to be well mixed before the start of the experiments but perfect
mixing could not be guaranteed due to the sedimentation of the materials in water when
shaken to achieve mixing. Interestingly enough, this is mimicking the jigging process used
in the minerals industry where the high-density mineral, in this case bronze, appears at the
bottom with the lower density one on top (plastic). The process was observed through the
glass wall of the vessel and the time taken to achieve a visible separation was noted. At
different frequencies, f, and Γ , the separation behaviour was observed and a graph of Γ
against f was plotted to show the boundaries between different behaviours.
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3. Observation of separation

This section describes the results of the separation of the different mixtures when sub-
jected to vibration and the effects of varying Γ and f.

3.1. Separation of plastic and bronze

In most cases, the mixture separated into two layers of bronze and plastic. At some
combinations of f and Γ , the separation was very good, with a pure bronze layer on top of
a pure plastic layer, with very little contamination. This kind of separation is known as a
“complete separation”. An example of such separation is shown in Fig. 1a–f for f = 40 Hz
and Γ = 8.3. Once the cell was subjected to vibration, a bronze rich layer was formed in
about 4 min. At the initial stage of separation clusters of bronze were formed and coalesced
until they gathered into a tilted layer sandwiched between the plastic particles (Fig. 1b).
The upper plastic layer moved in an anticlockwise convection current. This layer gradually
became thinner as the plastic passed through the bronze layer until it eventually resulted in
a bronze rich layer on top of a plastic layer (Fig. 1f). It should be noted that at the end of
the experiment the bed with the bronze on top layer, remained tilted.
Fig. 2 shows the behaviours of the 75% plastic:25% bronze mixture at different frequen-
cies, f, and Γ values. Boundary lines are drawn to distinguish between the different regions.
The line ‘α’ in Fig. 2, shows the boundary at which separation started to occur within 120 s
of vibration. Below this line, in region A, there was no separation or separation is very slow.

Fig. 1. The behaviour of 25:75% mixture of bronze and plastic, mean size 325 ␮m at Γ = 8.3 and f = 40 Hz. The
vibration was stopped and photographs were taken after (a) 0 s, (b) 30 s, (c) 90 s, (d) 150 s, (e) 210 s and (f) 250 s
of vibration.
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Fig. 2. Schematic diagram showing the behaviour of a 25:75% mixture of bronze and plastic, mean size 325 ␮m
as a function of frequency and Γ . Region A: no separation, region B: area of complete separation, region C: tilted
sandwich separation, region D: dome shape sandwich separation.

Above ‘α’, the sandwiched bronze rich layer was formed after a few seconds only. The
higher the frequency and Γ values, the faster the formation of the bronze layer. However
‘complete separation’ with the bronze on top occurred only in region B. As for regions C and
D, the bronze layer remained sandwiched between the two plastic layers. In region C, the
sandwich bronze layer, remained tilted, but at very high frequency and Γ values, as in region
D, Faraday tilting was no longer observed. Instead, the bed was dome shaped which may
be due to the balance created by the convection current observed on both sides of the cell.
When the composition of the bronze and plastic was changed to a 50:50% mixture
the separation process occurred within 2.5 min. It proceeded in the same way as the 75%
plastics:25% bronze mixture, with the formation of a tilted sandwich layer which then turned
into a bronze rich layer on top. This mixture consisted of smaller amount of plastic particles
than the previous one. Therefore, the separation was quicker since less plastic particles need
to go through the bronze layer to achieve complete separation. Complete separation with a
bronze rich layer on top occurred at a low frequency.

3.2. Separation of WEEE materials

After considering the behaviour of bronze and plastic under vibration, it was important
to study the separation of real materials. It was unclear how the varying composition of
the WEEE material and the irregular nature of the shredded particles would influence the
separation process. Experimental procedures were similar to those used for the bronze and
plastic mixture. An example of the behaviour of the WEEE material under vibration in
water at f = 32 Hz and Γ = 8.3 is shown in Fig. 3a–i.
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Fig. 3. Behaviour of shredded WEEE materials, size range 250–400 ␮m, under Γ = 8.3 and f = 32 Hz. The pictures
form a time sequence from (a) to (i) and correspond to 0, 10, 20, 40, 60, 80, 110, 130 and 190 s of vibration.

Separation occurred within 3 min of vibration and the results were found to be anal-
ogous to the bronze and mixed plastic system. The bed moved into a wave form pattern
and after 20 s of vibration the metal fragments, which consisted mainly of copper, started
to gather up (Fig. 3c). Eventually, a tilted bed was formed with a copper rich layer sand-
wiched in between two layers of non-metallic materials, though some copper were still
in the lower layer (Fig. 3d). The bed moved in an anticlockwise convection current forc-
ing the top materials into the lower layer. This caused the bed to take a pile shape until
it equilibrated into a tilted bed (Fig. 3g). The convection current continued in the anti-
clockwise direction until all the upper materials were forced down through the copper rich
layer (Fig. 3h). The direction of the convection current is as illustrated in Fig. 4b. This
convection current eventually carried the remaining copper fragments into the top layer
(Fig. 3i).
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Fig. 4. Convection pattern.

4. Discussion

The above observations suggest that bronze and plastic materials can be separated into
two distinct layers using the vertical vibration technique. ‘Complete separation’ with a
bronze rich layer on top occurred at low frequencies and low Γ . Two different mixture
ratios were used with separation occurring for both mixtures. It was observed that even
when the high-density materials were as low as 25% of the mixture, it still separated. This
mixture was found to take about 2 min longer to separate than a 50:50% mixture.
Burtally et al. (2003) separated a mixture of glass and bronze, where the shape of the
particles were spherical. In this study, even though the mixed plastic particles were of
irregular shape and the bronze uniform spheres good separation was still observed. However,
the bed remained tilted throughout the separation process whereas in the study of Burtally
et al. (2003), the bed was horizontal after vibration. This may be explained by considering
that the plastic materials have a lower density than glass and may get more easily entrained
in the convection current. This separation was carried out in water, which is more viscous
and has an important effect on the bed shape.
Convection may also be influenced by the relative density of the materials. Above the
line ‘α’ in Fig. 2, the particles start to fluidise and a convection current was set up. Fig. 4a
and b shows the pattern of this convection current. The top and bottom layer moved in
an opposite direction to the sandwiched layer. Convection is considered to be one of the
main mechanisms contributing to separation. The convection current was set up within
each individual layer rather than in the bed as a whole. It was observed that the convection
entrained the heavier materials and they eventually gathered up into a layer. The convection
current was observed to be dominant in the sandwich and the top layers. After complete
separation, the convection current remained in the same direction as shown in Fig. 4b and
the two layers did not remix.
Since the particles are of different densities, the separation process may be explained
by the effect of the momentum and drag forces on the particles during vibration. Williams
(1976) stated that the bigger the particle the further it travels through a fluid. Thus, the
distance travelled by the particles does not depend on the materials but on their size. Simi-
larly, the momentum of a particle is proportional to the mass of the particle (Akiyama et al.,
2000). Therefore, the higher density particles are thrown higher than the lower ones during
vibration and are further carried by the convection current. As a result, the lower density
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particles get more easily carried into the convection current, and thus, causing separation
between the two different density materials. The higher density size particles have greater
momentum when it is vibrated at low frequency and high amplitude for a given Γ . Thus,
‘complete separations’ with the bronze on top were observed only at low frequencies as
shown in Fig. 2.
When comparing the result of WEEE materials with the plastics and bronze mixture, it
was observed that the behaviours are analogous. The separation occurred with the heavier
layer on top of the lighter one. The top layer was a copper rich layer, but it also contained
a small fraction of other metals that were present in the WEEE materials. The lower layer
consisted mainly of plastic and other lighter materials of non-uniform shape. At the end
of the separation, the bed exhibited the Faraday tilt similar to the one in the previous
experiments with pure materials and the convection current followed the same pattern as
the one discussed above. However, before stabilizing into the tilted shape the bed followed
a wave form, and then produced a peak in the middle of the bed. This may be due to the fact
that the copper gathered up in equal proportions on both sides of the bed thus forming two
individual convection currents in the copper rich layer. During the experiments, some very
fine dust-like particles remained suspended in the water during vibration. These materials
did not take part in the separation process.

5. Conclusion

Using the vertical vibration technique to separate materials, it was observed that for
both cases, the bronze–plastic combination and the WEEE material, the metal components
can be separated. When particle sizes are larger, water can be used as a medium to enhance
separation. Convection and differences in momentum between the different density particles
were the major driving force for separation. The mixture of 25% bronze showed that even
low concentration of bronze separated successfully under vibration. Thus, this could form
the basis of a practical method for separating copper from WEEE. Further studies will be
carried out to give more detailed quantitative analysis for the separation. Work is currently
underway to develop a laboratory-based continuous system.

Acknowledgements

The authors are thankful to Helena Webster and Philip Hall for their help and support.
N. Mohabuth was supported by the Developing Solutions Research Scholarship, University
of Nottingham.

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