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Laptop research benefits landfills, chickens … and UI students

Joseph Lieb
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Monitored progress
Industrial design professor Cliff Shin, center, offers assistance to graduate student Ehsan Noursalehi, left, and engineering student Kevin Verre during a meeting of the “A New Life for Laptops” research group. The group, with monetary support from Dell Corp., is searching for ways to extend the life of inoperable laptops by finding alternate uses for them.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, May 3, 2012 | Mike Helenthal, News Editor | 217-333-5491; mhelenth@illinois.edu

A student-centered research group at the UI has set out to prove that it is possible for the concepts of academic exploration and commercial practicality to peacefully coexist – and that Earth’s environment can benefit from the union.

The work is being done at the School of Art and Design’s Product Innovation Research Laboratory in conjunction with the Sustainable Electronics Initiative at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, a unit within the Prairie Research Institute. The collaboration is led by a diverse group of faculty members and students and supported through a grant from the Dell Corp.

The challenge offered to the students – among the top in the disciplines of business, engineering, industrial design and marketing – was to find a new use for laptop computer “shells” whose hard drives have been rendered inoperable.

The unserviceable laptops – or what’s left of them – traditionally are recycled or thrown away and options for their reuse to this point have been limited.

Despite a growing number of rules and regulations – like the law that went into effect this year in Illinois – disposal of electronic waste is a growing problem around the world. It’s aggravated by the breakneck speed of technological advancement and the accelerating pace to replace obsolete hardware.

“The issue is, what do you do with these computers after they’ve outlived their use?” said William Bullock, an industrial design professor, PIRL director and a principal investigator for the laptop recycling project dubbed “A New Life for Laptops.” 

“If they keep getting buried in a landfill they’re not useful anymore; it’s simply a waste,” he said.

And add to the landfill problem the global practice of using developing countries as a dumping ground for old electronics, where tons of equipment containing toxic materials is “scrapped” for residual precious metals in caustic open-air burn pits.

“By finding ways to make these things useful again they can be diverted away from those places,” he said.

Bullock said officials at Dell, which already operates an effective laptop recycling program, wanted the project not only to advance computer re-purposing research, but also to provide a cross-disciplinary learning environment for UI students.

‘We’ve invited the best and brightest students to work on this problem,” he said. “We can steer them in the right direction, but the idea is for it to be student-driven and student-presented. They’re trying to solve a problem but they’re also learning about the research process and the importance of diverse collaboration. It’s a new experience for them and I think it’s been a positive one.”

The 15 students have been led to seek out solutions possessing entrepreneurial potential.

“This is a real-world experience,” said Cliff Shin, an industrial design professor and a project principal investigator with corporate design experience. “They’ve followed the same process as you would in a commercial research project; it’s beyond just making something look pretty.”

The students have been working on the project all semester and last month presented their ideas in a conference call with Dell research and development representatives. Their findings also will be presented as the final installment of the ISTC spring noontime seminar series May 8 and they’ve been urged to enter the project in the ISTC’s International E-waste Design Competition in the fall.

Shin said project leaders have been encouraged by the academic growth they’ve seen in students – for some their first exposure to a full-fledged research effort.

“At first, progress was kind of slow,” Shin said. “There were times when we couldn’t agree and I’d have to step in and say, ‘stop, take a step back.’

“But as they’ve engaged each other, they’ve become friends and I started to see something bigger happening,” he said. “Then you could just see the curve increasing. This experience will be a great advantage for them.”

Industrial design graduate student Ehsan Noursalehi, who also leads discussions and is the communication conduit between the group and faculty leaders, said the group narrowed its focus by studying venture capital patterns and more generally, the market for used computer components.

Agriculture turned out to be a likely market target and the students turned their questions toward UI farm experts for help in envisioning specific products that farmers might need enough to actually buy. Students also toured area farms and consulted regularly with Dell officials.

“From the very start we’ve encouraged lots of ideas,” Noursalehi said, “and we’ve gotten literally hundreds of ideas. They’re working on a team with other majors and everyone has had a voice, but they don’t always see how they can benefit one another. It was a learning process.”

Eventually the list of ideas was whittled to three or four the group considered its best and students presented the ideas during the Dell conference call.

Among the student researchers’ best refurbishment ideas was one to create a subscription service for farmers wherein good, working computers could be offered to anyone looking to replace old equipment.

The top re-purposing proposal involves using laptop LCDs (the viewing screen) as heat lamps for newly hatched chicks (whose growth, according to research, can be positively affected by certain light colors).

“We’d like to see them be able to take one of these ideas to reality,” Noursalehi said.

Bullock said there are hopes the students will take their work to “the next level” and develop a marketable product. He said some of the students’ findings have already posed questions that could lead to future research partnerships with Dell.

“We started with hundreds of ideas, but we narrowed it down to farming and agriculture as an area in need of focus,” he said. “This is the way discovery happens.”

ISTC: Waste awareness, strategies grow

By Mike Helenthal
Assistant Editor

Leaders at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center say the project “A New Life for Laptops” is yet another example of how environmental consciousness can be achieved without sacrificing either commercial viability or educational mission.

In fact, employing a business-savvy approach can enhance the learning experience and provide the commercial investor a product that’s less speculative and closer to shelf-ready, said Nancy Holm, ISTC’s sponsored research coordinator and co-coordinator of ISTC’s Sustainable Electronics Initiative.

“Letting students see the business end – that’s very important,” she said. “It helps them think creatively and practically.”

“And Dell is getting the benefit of these fresh young minds,” said Joy Scrogum, ISTC resource specialist and SEI’s other co-coordinator. “It’s been a valuable partnership for both.”

The partnership is an example of SEI’s education focus and dovetails with a campuswide initiative to integrate environmental sustainability into classroom curricula – from high-level engineering courses to basic English composition.

The educational hope is to increase student electronic-waste awareness and discover new strategies aimed at transforming the seemingly imbedded culture of technological rollout and replacement.

“We think it’s a matter of getting the word out and communicating,” Holm said. “We want to change the way they’re looking at their computers and their phones.”

Industry is reacting to a number of factors, including the environmental threats posed by electronic waste, a growing collection of laws addressing disposal and the limited disposal options.

“There’s been a lot of attention paid to the topic of e-waste recently because our electronics are constantly being upgraded,” Holm said.

“So we’re also trying to engage companies that are very supportive and want to sponsor e-waste research and integrate design for disassembly or more environmentally friendly materials choices into their production processes,” Scrogum said.

“ISTC is funding several sustainable electronics research projects,” Holm said. “Adding corporate partnerships also represent an additional funding vehicle. Dell put up $15,000 for the laptop research work during an era of budgetary uncertainty.”

The new campus initiative also encourages cross-discipline collaboration like that being practiced in the Dell grant program.

“We tend to be boxed in within our disciplines,” Scrogum said. “When you bring people together it gets them out of their shells. They start working together and crossing those boundary lines. We’re always looking for connections.”

ISTC will host a seminar series starting next fall focused on sustainable electronics. The series is expected to include as many as eight presentations and will culminate in the announcement of winners in the 2012 International E-Waste Design Competition.

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