Gadgets That Self-Destruct: "Active Disassembly"

Nokia has created a prototype of a cell phone that dissembles itself in two seconds. Today, most cell phones and other small electronics are shredded instead of taken apart for recycling, because the disassembly time is too expensive for the amount of material reclaimed. In contrast, a process called "active disassembly" is all about creating gadgets that can break into their component parts just by being exposed to heat or magnetism. It saves money, and the materials can be recovered more efficiently.Here is Nokia's outline of the disassembly processes they are working on:

Nokia Research Center, together with a student group from Helsinki University of Technology, the Finnish School of Watchmaking and the University of Art and Design Helsinki have developed a process for heat disassembly of portable devices. The idea is to disassemble a mobile phone by a heat-activated mechanism without any contact. By using a centralized heat source like laser heating, the shape memory alloy (SMA) actuator is activated, and the mobile phone covers are opened. The battery, display, printed wiring board (PWB) and mechanical parts are separated and can then be recycled in their material specific recycling processes. The required temperature for the disassembly is 60-150 ºC. If it were lower the phone could dismantle by itself, for instance in a hot car, and if it were higher the plastics would melt. Laser heating is a feasible method due to its speed and precision. However, it requires investment in a proper disassembly line.

The heat-activated mechanism is a fast and cheap method if compared to manual dismantling, which takes on average two minutes and costs about 0.3-0.8 , per phone. In the project, the heat-activated disassembly took only two seconds and the only cost is the investment cost in a disassembly line. However, the method still needs to be developed further.


Worldchanging points out that Nokia is not the first player in this game: various academic research has been done, and there is at least one company--Active Disassembly Research--that works exclusively on this. Active Disassembly does technology, logistics, and policy-related work in the field, and they have a great video gallery showing how some of these things work: screws unthreading, rivets and hooks unhooking, reversible glues sloughing off, and washers becoming springs to push components apart.

:: Nokia via The Green Guy. See also this overview by Worldchanging.