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New Lease of Life for Old Cables
March 31, 2015   
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Polish wire and cable producer Tele-Fonika Kable and the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow have developed an innovative method of recycling old electric cables and production waste into new cables.

Electric cables made from recycled materials using the new method are as good as those made using aluminum and copper straight from a smelting plant, according to the inventors. The new method is environmentally friendly and helps save money.

Based in the southern town of My¶lenice, Tele-Fonika Kable is the third largest wire and cable producer in Europe with four production facilities in Poland, one in Ukraine and one in Serbia. A large part of the company’s output is production waste, totaling 8,000 metric tons a year. Some time ago, Tele-Fonika Kable decided to recycle this waste with the help of researchers from the AGH university. The project is called “New Recycling Technology for Continuous Casting of Copper Wires for Use in Power Engineering, Based on Copper Pellets from Waste Cables.”

According to Prof. Tadeusz Knych, head of the AGH research team working on the project, the recycling of old products, tools, appliances and other materials is one of the biggest challenges in contemporary materials engineering.

Most electric cables are made from copper and aluminum with one or more layers of insulation made from plastic or other materials. The insulation is there to shelter the metal core from external conditions, on the one hand, and to keep people safe from electric shocks, on the other. In order to give old and substandard cables a new lease of life, the researchers have developed a method to separate the insulation from the metal and purify the materials used in the cables.

“While working on the project, we focused on ensuring the appropriate use of the recycled copper and aluminum,” says Knych. “We first extract the metal from the cables and turn it into pellets that are subsequently reused to produce electric cables, wires and power cords. The process requires a special furnace.” The furnace was borrowed from Tele-Fonika Kable’s facility in Zajecar, Serbia. Jakub Siemiński, chief technology officer at Tele-Fonika Kable, says the furnace was originally intended for vertical continuous casting of copper. “Together with AGH researchers, our engineers used the furnace to cast copper wires from pellets obtained from waste materials,” says Siemiński. The resulting 8-millimeter-wide wire is a quality product ready for use in power engineering.

“With the right furnace at our disposal, we decided to try to produce pellets on a semi-commercial basis,” says Siemiński. “The experiment was a success… so we decided to move the furnace from Serbia to our facility in Bukowno.”

The project eventually led to developing innovative and environmentally friendly technology to recycle metals from electric waste. The value of the project totaled zl.8.1 million. In 2013, a consortium formed by Tele-FonikaKable and the AGH university’s Faculty of Non-Ferrous Metals received over zl.4 million in co-financing from the National Center for Research and Development (NCBR) under its Demonstrator+ program. The funds were assigned for the construction of a demonstration installation for casting copper wire fit for use in the production of electric cables. Work to assemble the installation is nearing completion and production will be soon launched. “Thanks to this installation, we will no longer need to transport scrap and sell it off at a low price,” says Siemiński. “We will also save money because we will be buying less raw material, and the waste we generate will be recycled.”

Reaching this stage has by no means been an easy process, Siemiński says. He adds that the project would have never gotten off the ground without the help of the AGH university researchers. They set the right parameters for the installation, drew up a detailed description of the technology and identified the conditions in which metal from waste cables had to be smelted. The researchers also determined the exact properties of the copper pellets used in the process.

AGH’s Knych explains, “A cable or wire made of copper, aluminum and plastic has its insulation removed and is then taken apart to little pieces and cleaned. All the dirt has to be removed from the surface of the pellets to ensure purity at the level of single copper atoms.”

Pellets made from the plastic wire coating are sold to producers of flowerpots and road signs, while copper and aluminum pellets have so far been given away to smelting plants for a symbolic price. “Our technology processes waste into material that is no worse in terms of quality than metal straight from a smelting plant,” says Knych.

Karolina Olszewska
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