Photonics News

5G, IoT, and the E-Waste Crisis

Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy Systems Help Recycle Obsolete Electronics

5G technology, which claims to deliver data 100 times faster than 4G, promises lightning-fast downloads, low latency, and more capacity: all of which enable emerging technologies across both consumer and industrial IoT. As 5G wireless networks transform data delivery rates, there will be an unintended consequence, a tidal wave of e-waste as billions of 4G-enabled devices such as smartphones, modems, and computers are forced into obsolescence.

The Product Stewardship Institute notes that less than 20% of global e-waste is recycled, leaving 80% to either be incinerated or disposed of in landfills [3]. On a global scale, how will we handle this massive amount of electronic waste? Are

advances in recycling technologies like LIBS part of the answer?

Human and Environmental Impacts of E-Waste

The United States produces over three million tons of electronic waste [3], with many states banning improper electronics disposal. Instead, we export a large portion of e-waste to developing countries where it is considered general refuse. Self-employed workers then dismantle the waste to resell components and materials. Without regulations and proper infrastructure, toxic substances such as mercury, lead, and beryllium enter the soil, water, and air, posing significant health and environmental risks.

Regulating Electrical and Electronic Equipment

Electronics recycling is on the rise, but the growth of e-waste outpaces the rate of recycling. PSI and other organizations advocate for laws that would require electronics producers to collect and recycle obsolete products. In the European Union, electronics recycling continues to make headway, holding manufacturers responsible for proper disposal of obsolete equipment when the consumer purchases a newer version. Late last year, the EU enacted the Right to Repair standards, requiring that electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) manufacturers prolong the life of their products as well as stock spare parts for ten years [8]. In the most recent report published by the United Nations, 25 states in the U.S. have legislation for recycling EEE, but the lack of standardized regulations on a national level leaves gaps in enforcement and impact.

Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy in Electronics Recycling

The estimated value of recoverable e-waste materials exceeds $65 billion annually, yet only about 20% of e-waste is recycled. Technologies that make recycling more efficient may help get these valuable materials back into the production cycle.

Remote material analysis is vital to processing large quantities of e-waste. Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) devices quickly identify, sort, and separate materials that would otherwise end up in landfills. LIBS uses compact DPSS Nd:YAG pulsed lasers to ablate the materials by creating high-temperature plasma on the surface of a sample. The plasma then emits light with discrete spectral peaks that can be analyzed for chemical composition. Widespread use of LIBS in recycling facilities or production sites requires robust, fast, and compact LIBS systems.

Consumers and industries alike stand to benefit significantly from interconnected devices made even more efficient by 5G networks, and advanced technologies such as LIBS may be the key to managing the mountains of wasted devices.

Download this white paper to learn more about the challenges of LIBS technology in e-waste, research, and industry.