Corporate stewardship and responsibility toward the environment is becoming an ever-more-important part of the metals culture—a fact of life driven by increasingly strict state, regional and national regulations. So too with indium recovery from end-of-life products, which now stands as a key initiative for many electronics companies as they seek to conserve resources.
There's a definite incentive for end-of-life liquid crystal display (LCD) recycling as companies prepare for a wave of e-cycling laws expected to emerge in the coming years, according to the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) in Parkersburg, W.Va. E-cycling laws will cover 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2011, the group said.
The number of LCDs reaching recyclers is almost non-existent currently, according to David Thompson, president of Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Co. LLC (MRM), a Washington-based recycling management firm that has been overseeing and organizing a national infrastructure e-cycling program through a joint partnership with flat-panel TV manufacturers like Panasonic Corp., Sharp Corp. and Toshiba Corp.
"LCD television recycling is going to be a requirement for us in the future," Thompson said, noting that the MRM partnership has been able to reduce overhead costs and maximize the cost effectiveness that comes with larger volumes of incoming products.
Sharp alone has had internal e-cycling programs since 1992. Now, the company is exploring multiple recycling mechanisms, such as public storage sheds for recyclable goods, and said it's ready to handle large volumes of LCDs when they start pouring in.
Although MRM has set up 280 drop-off points for products around the country, "I hardly see any LCD televisions coming in," Thompson said. One of the most obvious reasons is that LCDs have become a popular household item only in recent years, and with a lifespan of up to 30 years it will take some time for products to be discarded.
The same holds true in the solar semiconductor industry, where recyclers aren't looking into end-of-life copper, indium, gallium, (di)selenide (CIGS) solar panel recycling because the products are fairly new. It's also unlikely that the CIGS solar industry will use recycled indium, currently playing only a small role in the solar market. The best way to ensure access to a steady supply of indium is via long-term contracts, much like LCD fabricators do today.
"We have contracts with suppliers who are confident that indium supply is unlikely to be an issue for CIGS for the foreseeable future," said Kelly Truman, vice president of marketing, sales and business development at Fremont, Calif.-based solar systems manufacturer Solyndra Inc. "Some reasons are the declining growth rate of flat-panel display manufacturing, increased recycling by the flat-panel industry and new sources coming online."
However, the cell phone market, which has been around for years, has a more developed recycling program. Most cell phones also have LCDs. Dave Conrad, head of Nokia Corp.'s North American environmental activities, has already seen 150 tons of cell phones come in for recycling at company-backed programs.
For Conrad, finding a feasible way to extract various metals from cell phones isn't only necessary but logical. He estimates there are currently 700 million unwanted cell phones containing metals that could be recycled at a much lower cost than mining and refining from primary sources.
Cell phones are a valuable resource for metals like indium, Conrad said, adding that he sees it as part of his job to ensure that such metals don't get wasted.
However, indium prices would need to rise to thousands of dollars per kilogram to warrant the capital investment needed to retrieve the small quantities contained in LCDs. Retrieving indium requires dismantling the LCD screen, removing the liquid crystal material, etching the metallization that is put on the glass with acids and refining those acids to recover indium, chromium, aluminum, molybdenum and silicon—all relatively tiny amounts compared with the overall weight of an LCD TV panel.
Right now, indium often just shows up as a contaminant in other piles of metals that recyclers are sorting out, according to Frank Marella, senior manager of corporate environmental affairs at Sharp Electronics Corp.
NCER executive director Jason Linnell agreed. "Right now, those are some of the more difficult items that they have to segregate and it slows down the whole process," he said. Currently, once electronics products are shredded or hand dissembled, they are gutted for metals that are then sorted by type, typically ferrous and nonferrous. Shredders probably don't have the ability right now to segregate specialty metals, he said, noting that most companies just focus on one or two of the more valuable materials and disregard the rest.
Nevertheless, Marella believes there could be a market for the metals in LCD TV monitors once they start hitting the waste stream, with the caveat that the needs of the recycling markets and manufacturing industries might have changed by then.
Still, even when LCD recycling does take off, it's unlikely that recycled materials will be reused by the original manufacturer. "Metals are kind of infinitely recyclable and certainly they can be used for the most part in any market that needs those metals," Marella said. "(This) makes products that use a lot of metals a valuable commodity, and not even so much a lot of metal, but where metal is a decent size constituent."