E-cycling

Houston small business introduces state-of-the-art technology for electronics recycling

Houston-based CompuCycle has acquired a new shredder that can automatically sort and dismantle electronics. Courtesy of CompuCycle

Currently, there are more than 135 million cell phones, 23 million televisions, and 31 million computers in landfills in the United States that don't have to be.

"Eighty percent of electronics are still landfilled in the United States," says Kelly Hess, CEO of CompuCycle, citing Consumer Take Back Coalition and EPA 2014 data. "We really want to advocate to change that number, because it's not necessary."

CompuCycle — a Houston company that has been around for over 20 years — has taken a big step toward that goal by adding an electronics shredder to its services. The shredder can dismantle 40,000 pounds a day of electronic material down to just about the finest it can get. It's the only of its kind in Houston — and one of only a few in Texas.

"It's a game changer," Kelly says. "When it comes to electronics recycling, if there's anything that can be sexy about it, this is sexy. It's as good as you can get."

As a R2 certified company, CompuCycle works with large corporations — local and worldwide — to safely wipe data from old electronics, refurbish them, and recycle what can't be refurbished. While most of the company's business is this B2B model, Harris County residents can drop off electronics to be disposed of responsibly free of charge.

While CompuCycle has focused on responsible electronics disposal since Kelly's father-in-law, John Hess, founded the company in 1996, certain recent events have increased the need to recycle more efficiently.

"China is no longer accepting scrap, which is where a lot of materials would go after it was dismantled," Kelly says. "That's why we've created this solution to be able to responsibly handle it here in the U.S."

The new Chinese law shifts the responsibility of electronics recycling back to the U.S., resulting in a rising need for more education and legislation surrounding recycling, says Clive Hess, executive vice president at CompuCycle and husband to Kelly.

"Texas has pretty weak electronic recycling laws — they do have some laws, and something is better than nothing," Clive says. "But, in a perfect world they wouldn't allow the landfilling of electronics."

At the end of the day, CompuCycle's new shredder is moving the needle on electronics recycling, but there's much more to be done, especially since recyclers still bear the brunt of the costs associated with recycling.

"We need to educate the manufacturers, the retail outlets, and the recyclers," Clive says. "We need to work together to provide recycling programs for people to take advantage of. There's a lot more work that needs to take place in order for recycling to be more effective."


CompuCycle's new shredder can dismantle 40,000 pounds of electronics materials a day. Courtesy of CompuCycle

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This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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