One of the major problems faced by developed countries today is the rapidly increasing volume of electronic waste. As many as 142,000 computers are discarded every day in the U.S. alone. This amounts to a total of 50 million per year; a figure that accurately represents the extent to which the e-waste problem plagues the entire world, especially the West. The Bangalore branch of IBM Research India has devised an incredibly innovative mechanism by which the residual power of discarded lithium-ion laptop batteries can be used to provide electricity to the poor.
According to the scientists, 70-percent of the batteries that are disposed of contain sufficient power to support an LED light for a minimum of four hours daily, for at least a year. The research, recently presented at DEV 2014 in San Jose, California, proposes the use of a new device, called UrJar to generate power for those living in slums. While integrating solar panels and rechargeable batteries will indeed prove to be more beneficial, repurposing old batteries offers a far cheaper alternative. Speaking about the project, Vikas Chandan, a scientist working at IBM’s Smarter Energy Group, said:
The most costly component in these systems is often the battery…In this case, the most expensive part of your storage solution is coming from trash.
Working alongside a local Hardware R&D company, called Radio Studio, the researchers first took the batteries apart to remove the cells present inside. After carefully testing each of the individual cells, those that had enough power left in them were used to develop the new battery packs. A simple circuitry was added to prevent overheating of the cells. Additionally, a set of charging dongles, for a number of DC devices such as mobile phones, small fans and LED lights, was attached to the setup.
Following the successful construction of UrJar, the technology underwent a small-scale trial. During this time, the device was given to five Bangalore residents, four of whom were street vendors, for periods ranging from one week to three whole months. Not only did the repurposed batteries work without a glitch for the entire trial period, one of the users proudly said that the device allowed him to keep his shop open for two extra hours, everyday. However, one major request, according to IBM employee Mohit Jain, was for rat-proof wring and brighter light bulbs.
The scientists, working on the project, believe that for production volume of 1000 or higher, the price per unit of UrJar, plus a 3W LED light bulb and a mobile charger, will only be 600 rupees ($9.70). This makes it a far more affordable option than the widely used rechargeable lighting devices, running on lead-acid batteries. The IBM team said:
UrJar has the potential to channel e-waste towards the alleviation of energy poverty, thus simultaneously providing a sustainable solution for both problems.
In India, itself, 400 million people live without electricity and power. Furthermore, a rapidly expanding IT sector has led to an unprecedented increase in the production of e-waste – as much as 32 tons per day. Talking about the significance of the initiative, Keith Sonnet, of UK-based Computer Aid, said:
We think that this is an excellent initiative as it is in line with our practice of reusing and refurbishing rather than recycling…Refurbishing has definitely a more positive impact on the environment and we should encourage more companies to adopt this practice.