Analysis: materials in our TVs can pose a risk to the environment and health if not managed correctly

Little do people realise that the devices we have in our homes, our offices, and our bedrooms have the potential to cause harm. LCD TVs contain two substances that can render these devices dangerous and EU law stipulates that these substances must be removed from LCDs when they are dumped as waste or discarded. The substances are liquid crystals which are the magic behind the TVs' operation and that highly infamous substance mercury.

Liquid crystals are a unique class of materials which flow like a liquid when viewed under a microscope. Their molecules resemble that of a solid with some degree of order like a crystal - hence the name liquid crystals - and were discovered by Austrian scientist Friedrich Reinitzer in 1888 while he was working with derivatives of cholesterol which exhibited these properties.

Liquid crystal materials became the focus of research in the development of flat panel electronic displays in 1962. It began when chemist Richard Williams applied an electric field to a thin layer of nematic liquid crystals. This eventually led to liquid crystal-based flat panel display replacing the cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions.

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Liquid crystals used in TVs today are made of complex organic compounds comprised of up to 30 and more components. These materials may pose a risk to the environment and health if not managed correctly. They have been assessed as having potential accumulation effects in the environment (soil and water) where they could potentially reach concentrations and act as contaminants, posing risk to our drinking water and food chain. 

On the other hand, mercury is contained in small fluorescent lamps at the rear of an LCD TV which is designed to light up the screen. Memories of mercury from school childhood times may bring flashes of holding the liquid metal in your hand in solid form. However, mercury poisoning can result from exposure to water-soluble forms of mercury by inhalation of mercury vapour or by ingestion.

The mercury in TVs is in the form of valour or a gas with in the tubes of the lamps. If these are broken, you face the risk of mercury poisoning including muscle weakness, poor coordination, numbness of hands and feet, kidney problems and decreased intelligence. The latter contributing to the invention of the phrase "mad as a hatter" from the 1820s where the hattery business used mercury in the hat-making process. Mercury poisoning causes symptoms similar to madness and death, occurring with the accumulation of mercury in the body. 

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The prevalence of these hazardous substances with in our TVs is significant when considering the 250 million TVs that are sold every year globally. Once these TVs come to the end of their useful life, disposing them in a manner that protects our environment, soil and water supplies is crucial. It's for this reason that the European Commission developed legislation that makes it mandatory to remove these substances from TVs at the end of their life. 

But the problem is that TVs are incredibly difficult to disassemble and dismantle. If you have ever attempted to look inside your TV, you would see that there are layers of circuits board, frames and glass panels. With literally tonnes of LCDs arriving at recycling facilities, it is next to impossible to keep up when one worker recycles three LCDs per hour, all the while being extremely careful handling the toxic substances. 

An Irish solution

Votechnik is an University of Limerick spin-out company which has developed an intelligent automated robotics technology to recycle these LCDs, removing the hazardous materials at a staggering rate of 60 LCDs per hour. 

From EPA-funded research, the technology uses state of the art robotics to examine the LCDs and locate the components to be removed. It separates them by using a series of precision cutting and shearing operations - a type of keyhole surgery if you will. The LCDs afterwards are as harmless as a toaster, making the LCD safe to shred and capture the metal value contained within. 

At 5 metres high and wide, the machine is literally a black box solution where the air inside is filtered for mercury, making the machine safe to be around while high volumes of LCDs are being recycled. At full capacity, the machine can capture over 100 tonnes of hazardous materials per year. 

Votechnik launched its first machine in a live recycling facility in 2018 at KMK Metals in Kilbeggan where the solution is being used to process Irish LCDs. The technology has been patented and this start-up company is now focused on multiple deployments of the technology into the EU and USA markets.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.