Leading innovation
SciAps Inc.

Leading innovation

Don Sackett, CEO and co-founder of SciAps, discusses innovation and trends in hand-held metal sorting technology.

September 18, 2019

SciAps Inc., a Woburn, Massachusetts-based company that has helped lead the development of hand-held metal analyzers used in the scrap metal industry, says it has developed the world’s first hand-held analyzer capable of measuring carbon content in steel.

Don Sackett, chief executive officer and co-founder, started the company in 2013 with a goal to develop LIBS (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy) technology, which uses a laser to identify and measure elemental concentrations in metal. Sackett says the scrap industry primarily uses LIBS for aluminum alloy sorting, but there’s an increasing interest to use LIBS analyzers to measure what he calls contaminant elements, including lithium, in aluminum scrap and carbon content in steel.

“The mills are getting tougher and tougher on contaminant elements,” Sackett says. “The mills will pay scrap processors more if they can guarantee that certain contaminant levels are lower than a certain amount. There’s an increasing interest in measuring those elements whereas five years ago nobody cared.”

Early adopters of SciAps’ LIBS hand-held analyzer include Holland, Michigan-based Padnos and Kripke Enterprises Inc., Toledo, Ohio.

“In the steel industry, there’s a ton of users of carbon steel and stainless steel that really care about carbon content,” Sackett says. “It’s been a really big breakthrough for us to measure carbon with LIBS.”

He adds that more scrap processors might adopt LIBS technology if they see a return on investment, including more dollars per pound for separated carbon steels.

“I think there’s money to be made if you’re processing ferrous material and separating by carbon content. It’s almost more of an education effort than a technology effort,” Sackett says. “The LIBS device is not as simple and requires more advanced training. I’d like to see the scrap industry look at carbon steels and sorting them based on carbon content.”

Sackett, who worked at his grandfather’s scrap metal company in the summers as a teenager, began his career at Niton, which developed the industry's first hand-held X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer for scrap metal sorting.

“When we first started doing this, very few scrap yards used these hand-held analyzers,” he says. “Now you can go into some of the smallest recycling yards with five to six people and they’ll have a hand-held XRF to sort the metal. The industry in the last 10 to 15 years has adopted the hand-held sorters. It’s almost like they need that as much as a forklift or a baler. It’s really become standard equipment at scrap yards.”

After nine years with Niton, Sackett co-founded Innov-X Systems in 2001, which he says developed the first XRF analyzer with an X-ray tube instead of a radioactive source.

Niton was acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific, Waltham, Massachusetts, in 2005, and Innov-X was acquired by Olympus, the United States-based subsidiary of Tokyo-based Olympus Corp., in 2010.

“Many of the people who created SciAps were the founders and employees at Niton and Innov-X,” Sackett says. “You might not know the name SciAps, but you certainly know the people behind it.”

The key to sorting the many aluminum alloys is measuring the low concentration of magnesium and silicon quickly and precisely. When SciAps developed its XRF analyzer, Sackett says the company focused on improving detection of silicon and magnesium. SciAps XRF can measure as low as 0.25 percent in one second in aluminum alloys.

“Those are really important elements for aluminum alloy sorting,” Sackett says. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and we knew that aluminum alloy testing was a weak spot for the X-ray analyzer.”

SciAps worked on its laser-based LIBS analyzer for four years. A common misconception is the LIBS is a replacement to the XRF, which is easier, faster to use and more precise, Sackett says. He recommends using the LIBS in niche applications, including to measure carbon, boron, beryllium and lithium, which are elements the XRF can’t measure. SciAps sold 600 LIBS devices in the past two years, Sackett says.

In six years, SciAps has grown from a handful of founding employees to 125 people working in research, development and sales. The company has built a global business as a developer, manufacturer and supplier of XRF to sort stainless steel, red metals and aluminum alloys and LIBS hand-held analyzers to measure carbon content and other containment elements. Sackett says the company’s biggest markets are the U.S., China and Europe.

“We started from ground zero,” Sackett says. “We’ve been doubling our scrap business every year in terms of sales of our analyzers. We’re still a small percentage of the total market. People are just starting to really learn about us.”

Sackett says SciAps will continue to work to make the XRF “smaller, faster and lighter” as well as to improve its capability to measure levels of various metals, including lead and nickel.

“The mills will pay more if the concentration of these residual elements is guaranteed to be low in the metal,” Sackett says. “We’re trying to make analyzers that will allow them to sell to mills at higher prices. It benefits everybody. The mills get better materials, the scrap dealers get paid more and they’re more likely to invest in this improved technology.”