An Austrian University Makes Millions of Euros on the Waste
Austria is one of the leading European countries in terms of waste recycling: over 96% of its residents are sorting their trash. However, Austrian scientists and researchers do not stop and continue working on the new innovative solutions in the waste management sector - the recent one involves taking into use the power of artificial intelligence. This project and a few others are being developed by students and researchers of the University of Leoben (Montanuniversität Leoben).
The Chair of Waste Processing Technology and Waste Management (shortly AVAW, from German ’Abfallverwertungstechnik und Abfallwirtschaft’) was established at the University of Leoben in October 2011. Although less than nine years have passed since then, university’s employees and students are already enjoying the large-scale projects worth millions of euros, the completion of which takes several years of hard work.
One of their projects was focused on recycling of Li-ion batteries. The duration of research was set to four years, and a ministerial grant of one million euros was allocated to support the project. The aim of research was to find new ways for efficient transportation, proper storage and recycling of lithium-ion batteries – both intact and damaged ones included. According to Renato Sarc, Doctor of Engineering, Scientific Assistant at AVAW, all of the original goals had been achieved.
As he explains, ”At first, we has a special unit purchased, which we were to adapt to the process of battery recycling. The adaptation phase was finalised in 2018, and we got everything ready for the launch in January 2019. As of now, the unit can recycle up to 10 thousand tons of batteries per day; at the output we have separated metals”.
Another of the projects commissioned by AVAW was aimed at fuel reduction in the cement industry. The initial target was a real challenge - to ensure that the Austrian cement industry would run on 100% alternate fuels.
As Renato Sarc proudly says, "I wrote my thesis on this issue. The company I carried out this research for is now using fuels that are up to 95% made of alternative sources”.
The project of specific importance to AVAW is linked to making use of old landfills. The research was initiated in Austria, but now 15 European universities are working on completion of the study. This is the largest waste management project that has ever been implemented in Austria: its budget amounts to five million euros, the length of research is four years, six researchers and 20 students are working on the finalisation of this project. The commissioner of the study is an Austrian company INTER PRO.
As stated by Mr. Sarc, ”For the purpose of this research, we have been processing mixed waste. Mixed garbage generated in Europe contains up to 70% of valuable substances. Therefore, we need to invest more in recycling. In Europe, 68 million tons of waste end up being buried in landfills. This waste does not get processed at all. We definitely have lots of work to do…”
Students, scientists, eight representatives coming from different companies - they all participate in this project. The main object of the study is to digitalise the process of waste sorting. The procedure is as follows: the sensors define waste composition, its quality, and the approximate amount of useful and harmful substances in it. After sorting out, the garbage goes through grinding and scanning. An IR sensor analyses material composition, water content, energy density. Researchers take the sample and send it to be further processed. A full analysis of waste materials is conducted, and in the end they get sorted to a single particle.
The sensor needs to analyse different parts of waste separately in order to identify them correctly next time. Artificial intelligence (AI) in principle functions similar to human sensory organs – information it receives is then delivered to the main processor. The AI can process up to 1,200 tons of garbage and 10 terabytes of data over the course of one month. The current goal of researchers is to align all stages of the project, so as the the sensors would be able to identify valuable substances and send them for processing.
According to Mr. Sarc, ”We are mainly burning this waste now, and what we want to do is to separate valuable components that we can recycle. If we succeed, the amount of artificial materials generated in Europe will increase by four times as compared to the current level”.
The unit in possession of the university is a unique one, specifically designed by a partner company. Employees of the University of Leoben can upgrade the software independently if needed.
As per Mr. Sarc, "We are also analysing complex materials, and currently there is hardly anyone who knows how to separate them. Of course, such projects can be introduced only if university is actively involved in industrial research; also an industry partner is required”.
An important issue arising when dealing with innovative solutions is the matter of intellectual property rights. Depending on the conditions of the initial agreement, it is either a company-commissioner who holds the intellectual property rights or an university. Oddly enough, patents and licenses do not play an important role in the waste management industry. The reason is that waste processing is greatly affected by the composition of the waste, and it is heavily dependent on the country of origin. To give an example, there are about 60% of water in Chinese garbage, whereas only 30% in the Austrian waste. Therefore, combustion ratio for the waste generated in Austria is 10 megajoules (MJ) and for the trash originating from China is only four MJs.
Finally, it should be noted that through implementation of big-budget and large-scale projects the University of Leoben gets to solve the whole range of issues: students are looking for solutions to the problems of particular interest to their future employers, and the University develops new technologies, thus earning money and increasing its own prestige. Upon the graduation, bachelor's, master's and post-graduate students of the University not only know what they can and want to do, but they also know how to do it.