Industrial Electronics

PCB recycling processes: Challenges and prospects

18 February 2022
To be truly ecologically sound, PCBs should be assembled entirely of recyclable components. Source: Adobe stock

Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are a critical component of electronic systems and are widely used in consumer electronics, medical equipment and military applications. Recent technology advances have led to the availability of more affordable and superior electronic devices on the market, causing products to become obsolete more quickly and raising the specter of safely disposing growing volumes of discarded PCBs and their potentially hazardous constituents. In addition to the need for environmentally acceptable methods of electronic waste management, economic retrieval of precious and non-renewable resources is also a concern.

PCBs contain precious metals, base metals and hazardous chemicals with potential to cause permanent damage to the environment and human health. For example, the lead contained in PCBs collects in the environment and adversely impacts microorganisms, animals, humans and plants. Proper recycling and recovery of products derived from PCBs can help conserve finite natural resources and protect the ecosystem. This article discusses the current PCB recycling technologies, associated challenges and future prospects.

Types of PCB recycling processes

Current PCB recycling processes can be classified into two categories based on the material recovery technology used, for example, thermal and non-thermal processing. Thermal processing entails use of hydration, pyrolysis and metallurgical methods. In non-thermal processing, chemical treatment, disassembly, separation and shredding techniques are included. The output of non-thermal operations is frequently subjected to additional chemical treatment. The primary issue with PCB recycling is its complicated structure and material combination.

Stages of PCB recycling processes

Typically, the PCB recycling process consists of three stages: pretreatment, concentration/separation and chemical/mechanical refinement. Pretreatment may involve disassembly and composition analysis of reusable and harmful components. Useful components are returned to the market or manufacturer for reuse while dangerous constituents are handled separately. Following pretreatment, PCB boards are subjected to concertation/separating procedures and then converted to microscopic particles through shredding and sorting. Finally, materials are recovered following a chemical or mechanical refining process.

[Learn more about refining and recovery equipment technologies and manufacturers]

Challenges related to PCB recycling

The following are a few examples of challenges related to PCB recycling processes that must be addressed on a priority basis:

• It is exceedingly difficult to obtain accurate material composition data, as PCBs are perhaps the most intricate component of electrical products. PCBs have a wide variety of chemical compositions, making a thorough analysis impossible to produce with any degree of precision. Given the increasing evolution of technology and materials, care must be taken while considering materials derived from PCBs.

• Most recycling techniques recover just about 28% of the metal content of PCB waste. Over 70% of PCB scraps cannot be recycled or retrieved efficiently and must be burned or landfilled. It is critical, then, to create recycling systems that are more efficient.

• While many current PCB recycling processes, which are based on the Knudsen process, provide for competitive resource recovery, they are not the most environmentally friendly option.

• Tantalum and other rare elements are scattered in minute amounts in PCBs, making their recovery incredibly hard. While recyclers increasingly recognize the potential of precious material recovery, they lack an efficient technology for recovering valuable material from scrap PCBs.

Future prospects

Available PCB recycling technologies are ineffective at recovering plastic and ceramic components found in PCB scrap, which can incur a negative environmental impact. The bulk of separated materials are landfilled, which is not an eco-friendly approach. In some circumstances, these materials are incapable of being reused as fillers or construction materials. As a result, there is enormous potential for developing ecologically friendly precious metal recovery and recycling techniques.

[Discover more about PCB substrates, materials and providers on GlobalSpec.com.]

Another issue with the existing PCB recycling process is the automation of the disassembly stage. Numerous tests have been conducted in this field, but the complexity of the PCB material composition and structure precludes the widespread application of automatic disassembly methods. To address this issue, novel recognition and identification technologies should be developed to enhance processing. Additionally, various artificial intelligence-based techniques such as self-learning, fuzzy logic and neural networks must be developed and implemented in the recycling process. Because PCB scrap contains a variety of materials with varied intrinsic values, an integrated methodology incorporating mechanical, disassembly and hydrometallurgical approaches should be devised.

Conclusion

Toxic elements should be removed from the PCB manufacturing process. End-of-life product studies can result in significant enhancements to the design of electronic products. For instance, because plastics contribute to global warming when burned, designers must seek cleaner substitutes for laminates and component containers that use these materials. To be truly ecologically sound, PCBs should be composed entirely of recyclable components and metals.



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