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Say cheese and recycle, please! This camera could revolutionise the war on plastic waste

25 May 2023

A Danish trio is on a mission to revolutionise our ability to recycle plastics with the help of super-high-resolution hyperspectral cameras.

(Image: Shutterstock)
(Image: Shutterstock)

This game-changing technology can identify the chemical composition of plastic waste and its additives, paving the way for a sustainable future.

A study published in the journal Science Advances in 2017 shows that only nine percent of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste that has been produced since the 1950s has been reused. 

12 percent has been converted into energy via incineration, while almost 80 percent is in landfills or in nature.

Today, plastic is difficult to recycle because plastic waste is a mishmash of many different types of polymers with different chemical compositions as well as different additives such as dyes and flame inhibitors that give a plastic product its specific properties.

Aarhus University (AU), the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), and Newtec Engineering A/S have secured a significant grant of DKK 7.9 million from Innovation Fund Denmark's Grand Solutions programme. With a total budget of DKK 11.3 million, they are collaborating on an ambitious project to develop unique camera technology that streamlines plastic recycling processes.

The goal? Creating a high-resolution, hyperspectral camera capable of capturing an extensive spectral range from 400nm to 1,900nm with a desired resolution of only 2nm.

"It’s an extremely ambitious goal for this technology, and it places strict demands on the optical components in the camera technology. Besides a uniquely high resolution, we’re also aiming to optimise the camera optics for light spectra that are crucial for analysing plastics

“We’ll do this part in collaboration with leading optics experts at SDU and Newtec who have unique expertise in camera development," says Associate Professor Mogens Hinge from the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University.

Mogens Hinge and the research group, Plastics and Polymer Engineering are leading the project, and they have previously demonstrated that hyperspectral camera technology can revolutionise plastics recycling. The higher the resolution and the wider spectral area of the hyperspectral camera, the better.

The goal of the new project, which is called New Hyperspectral Camera technology for material identification, NewHC, is a spectral resolution and range high enough for the camera to reveal unwanted fire retardants and pigments in the plastic that may be banned or harmful, so that they can be removed before recycling.

"It's important that we separate plastics into as pure fractions as possible if we are to increase the rate of recycling. At least 95 percent purity in the plastic fractions is currently required, preferably higher. For this reason, we’re aiming to automate fast and efficient plastic recognition with this technology. 

“By doing this, we hope we can push the boundaries for future recycling of plastic waste and thereby reduce the need to make new plastics," says Bjarke Jørgensen, Head of Research & Development at Newtec Engineering A/S.

The new camera technology will be developed by the Plastics and Polymer Engineering research group (AU), NanoSyd (SDU), which is internationally recognised for research in optics, and Newtec Engineering A/S, which is the market-leading machine manufacturer specialising in advanced camera technology.

Once the technology has been developed, it will be installed in a specially constructed waste separation plant in collaboration with Newtec Engineering A/S.

"We’ll be developing a unique type of hyperspectral camera with an amazing spectral resolution. And by using a spatio-spectral analysis of signals that we’re developing to be based on artificial intelligence, we plan to push the boundaries further with regard to detecting additives in plastic waste," says Mogens Hinge.

The project will run for three years. Innovation Fund Denmark is investing DKK 7.9 million.

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