How can we recycle our TVs safely?

25 May 2018

Dr Lisa O’Donoghue, UL. Image: Dr Lisa O’Donoghue

Dr Lisa O’Donoghue, CEO of Votechnik, has developed a more efficient way to recycle TVs safely – and it all started with Star Trek. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

When Dr Lisa O’Donoghue was a child, it was the TV that sparked her interest in science. As a seven-year-old in Limerick, she was glued to Star Trek, and realised she had an interest in science and technology.

Today, TVs are still a big part of her life, but in a very different way. She has developed a robotic process to help recycling companies dispose of flat-screen TVs in a manner that complies with environmental regulations.

LCD waste

Future Human

The issue is that liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and fluorescent tubes in flat-screen devices contain chemicals that could leach into the environment if the discarded TVs are left in landfills. However, it is an arduous and time-consuming process to manually render the devices safe for disposal.

That’s where O’Donoghue is shaking things up. Through her research at the University of Limerick (UL), she has developed a process to automate the removal of hazardous materials from TVs during recycling, and she is on the cusp of launching that technology in Europe.

A materials scientist, O’Donoghue became aware of the practical issues around LCDs when she was looking for funding to start a project in her lab at UL.

“I was reading the funding calls for Europe, and it was apparent that LCD recycling was problematic,” she recalled. “LCDs above a certain size could not go to landfill because they contain organic compounds that could build up in the soil, so they have to be removed from the device at the end of its life.”

In addition, most LCDs also use fluorescent backlighting. Again, these are problematic for landfill because they contain the highly toxic element mercury, which needs to be removed and disposed of safely.

“If you are a recycler, you want to get those components out quickly, but if you do that manually it takes about 15 to 20 minutes to do a single TV,” she explained. “That means a worker will do at best three or four per hour, and that is not cost-effective.”

Robotic solution

Funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), O’Donoghue’s research came up with a faster solution using robotics.

“We wanted to see if we could automate the process,” she explained. “So, we scoped out the makes and models and dimensions, and we developed the technology to automatically remove screens from TVs.”

With the technology patented, O’Donoghue founded the UL spin-out company Votechnik (registered as ALR Innovations and a former Start-up of the Week) in 2011 and continued to further develop and test the approach.

“We were able to speed up the process from about four TVs per hour with the manual approach, to processing 60 LCDs each hour and getting the nasty materials out using our technology,” she said. “This higher throughput is important because it makes it economical to recycle LCDs, which means it’s viable for recyclers to do and it protects the environment.”

Entrepreneurship journey

Next month, O’Donoghue will travel to Brussels to demonstrate the technology, and her plan is to grow the business and deploy units across Europe.

“It has been a long journey,” she said of the spin-out and commercialisation process. “As a researcher, you start off with the materials project and you know how to approach the science, but then the technology development takes time and you need input from a lot of people and financing.”

O’Donoghue credits the Young Entrepreneur Programme run by Jerry Kennelly at the Institute of Technology Tralee with helping her to gain perspective along that journey. “We learned how to write a business plan, we looked at routes to market; it’s a different mindset to the one you have as a researcher,” she said. “That was where I learned to ask a different set of questions.”

Material gains

In parallel with her career as an entrepreneur, O’Donoghue is still active in the lab as a senior research fellow at UL, where she runs projects funded by the EPA and European Commission on how to recover metals from electronics.

“The electronics industry needs critical raw materials and many of them come from outside Europe, so here there can be a risk of supply,” she said. “We are looking at how you can recover important metals during recycling of those electronics, such as indium, which is used in touchscreens, and bauxite residues, which are byproducts of making alumina.”

She is also scoping out the possibility of a ‘one-stop shop’ where metals could be recovered from many different waste streams at a single plant.

Science or engineering?

When O’Donoghue was choosing what to study at university, she didn’t know whether to pick science or engineering, so she opted for material science and engineering at UL, because there were elements of both. “It was halfway between the two and we covered ceramics, polymers and metals,” she explained.

Having been to an all-girls secondary school, O’Donoghue was surprised to find that she was one of very few girls in her university class, but she soon stopped noticing.

“You get used to it,” she said. “And things are changing now; there are some engineering courses, like biomedical engineering, where you find a lot of female students. I recently spent some time in Sweden, too, working with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology in raw materials and looking at raw materials initiatives with the mining sector. I found that I would go into a meeting and more than half of the people at the table were women, which was the opposite of what I expected. Things are definitely changing.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication