Archive for March, 2012

Students seek new uses for discarded laptop computers

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 by

Is a laptop computer useless without a hard drive? A group of University of Illinois students doesn’t think so and is exploring new uses for such discarded laptops.

Laptops used by government agencies and various industries typically have their hard drives removed or destroyed before being sent to recycling. This is done out of concern for data of a secretive, sensitive, or personal nature falling into the wrong hands.

With funding provided by Dell, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at the University of Illinois is supporting the project entitled “A New Life for Laptops.” The project is being done in conjunction with the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at ISTC. Through this grant, SEI is challenging university researchers and students to envision untapped and underexplored uses for the valuable materials in laptops. The goal is to extend the useful life of these materials prior to recycling.

The project utilizes cross-disciplinary teams of students and research faculty from business, advertising, industrial design, and computer science engineering from the University of Illinois (UIUC) and scientists from ISTC, a division of the Prairie Research Institute.

The research effort is directed by William C. Bullock, Professor of Industrial Design. Others working with the project are Hong Yuan, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Business Administration; Brian Lilly, PhD, Adjunct Associate Professor, Engineering; and Cliff Shin, Associate Professor, Industrial Design. There also will be participation from ISTC research scientists. Graduate and undergraduate students from engineering, marketing, computer science, business, and industrial design will work together as project design team members. There currently are 15 Illinois students working on the project.

“We are focusing on the entrepreneurial use of such laptops,” said Bullock. “We are researching what venture capitalists are doing in this area and looking at the reuse of laptop components.”

The students also are examining the current business model for Dell concerning lifespan of computer components and their use.

“Dell has a recycling program, and it is a good one. What we are looking for is a new vision on how outdated laptops can be used,” said Bullock.

Students got started in the spring semester with the donation of 20 recycled Dell laptops. They were donated by Vintage Tech Recyclers in Romeoville, Illinois. Students will be taking these machines apart in order to experiment with new ideas. Any unused computer parts will be returned for recycling. Final class projects will be presented in May 2012 and results will be posted on the SEI website.

The laptop project will move from a general examination of business and design opportunities to a more detailed focus on one or more specific product opportunities. These will be based on lessons learned and knowledge gained as the research and development progresses. The project will proceed through the three distinct stages during the spring semester. They are:

  • Research – the initial project focus will be on efforts to understand the market and the Dell user needs.
  • Development – the second stage uses insights gained through research in order to create new designs and concepts and present them to Dell for feedback.
  • Finalization –this stage refines concepts addressing materials, technology, and product performance. The final recommendations will be an electronic presentation to Dell.

The students recently had a conference call with Dell officials to discuss the program. The Dell staff members working with the students are Mike Watson, Director of Compliance, and John Pflueger, Principal Environmental Strategist.

Waste from electronic devices is a growing problem around the world. These University of Illinois students hope to offer some possible alternatives to placing old laptops in a landfill.