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Feature: Could military technology end source separated collections?

In a quiet corner of Weymouth Bay in Dorset, a revolution is taking place that could transform the recycling industry. Set on the cliffs looking over the sea where the Olympic sailing competitions will take place in 2012, the Military of Defence part-owned research facility
of Qinetiq is using missile tracking and anti-tank technology to sort recycled goods.

Materials recycling facilities (MRFs) may never be quite the same again.

Qinetiq new ventures manager Steve Takel explains why the defence research industry took an interest in waste management and recycling: “It started about three and a half years ago when there was a squeeze on defence spending. Qinetiq had to look for new markets. So we looked at the waste industry because at the time it was technically deficient.

“We realised we could exploit defence technology here. In particular, we looked at household waste because it has lots of materials in it and, more importantly, lots of materials we could detect in it.”

The scientists and engineers set to work in old rail-way sheds that had been used, among other things, to test submarine sonar arrays, and put together a high-tech rig. At present, MRFs tend to use technologies such as trommels, overband magnets and eddy current separators and, perhaps most importantly, humans to sort materials such as paper, glass, metals and plastics.But the researchers realised that the success of MRFs depended on getting the most value from the materials, and this meant high levels of purity of material as well as separating it effectively.

They therefore decided to adapt technology that works out the position of missiles, as well as gadgets that help tank drivers to decide whether an object is a heavily camouflaged tank or just a humble tree.

Takel adds: “If you can track a missile, you can track an object on a conveyor. We have used sensors that work out the type of metals used in a mine, an over-optical tracking system similar to that used in jet fighters, and sonar technology that was used for tracking a coastline.”

What this would mean is that the Qinetiq team could guarantee a higher purity of materials that were coming through MRFs from co-mingled collections.

For those of you interested in the science, the kit takes data from a combination of broadband colour cameras, hyperspectral imagers and metal detecting arrays used in land and sea mine hunting, and then uses complicated algorithms to detect and work out the shape, type, weight, composition and even colour of the object on the conveyor. In other words, the technology puts
together a data picture of, say, a PET plastic bottle on the conveyor that enables it to then sort it into a hopper of clean PET bottles.

The way it sorts the materials is to fire a computer- controlled jet of air underneath the object that literally makes it fly into a cloth net before being caught in a conveyor and sent to the clean hopper. It is such an advanced system that it is able to work out if there is any food contamination in the bottle and send it to a reject hopper. It could be even adjusted to work out an agreed limit of contamination per materials stream.

Takel says: “We can move aluminium to the aluminium stage, steel to the steel stage or plastic to the plastic stage, and all of this can be with a very high rate of purity.

“It is so sensitive that it would be possible to sort different types

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