A new study from Kyung Hee University in Seoul found that most consumers keep a smartphone for about three years before buying a new one, even though the parts of the smartphone, especially the battery, have years of life left in them. In order to keep the electronics out of landfills, the researchers propose that the batteries be reused where electricity is scarce -- in rural communities where kerosene lamps are relied on for lighting.
The recycling project would see the lithium-ion batteries used as the energy storage for solar-powered LED lighting systems. A standard fully-charged phone battery could power a one-watt LED lamp for three hours or a 0.5 watt lamp, bright enough for reading, for six hours. A small solar panel could charge the battery during the day, providing a source of light every night without having to purchase expensive kerosene.
Lead-acid batteries, found in cars, have been used as energy storage solutions, but their life span is shorter than a lithium-ion battery. If old smartphones could be collected, the batteries would provide a reliable and cheap power source for rural and developing areas.
"Using the battery of mobile phones in small solar home systems becomes obvious in order to make access to electricity easier to those who live without," said Boucar Diouf, a professor at the university and lead researcher on the study.
The researchers built a 12-volt system consisting of three phone batteries, each with a 3100 millliamp-hour capacity. They were connected to a small solar panel and powered a 5-watt LED lamp that could light up an entire room for five hours a day. The whole system was made for only $25 and it's expected to last for three years without any maintenance.
The research team is now focused on organizing phone and battery collection programs and setting up e-waste recycling systems to produce the solar lighting kits. They also want to find ways to reduce the costs of the solar power systems even further.
The project will consist of five steps: battery collection, testing and selection, system manufacturing, commercialization, and installation and they hope to hire people in the areas where they will be installing the systems in order to provide needed jobs as well as lighting.
The team is already preparing pilot projects of the solar lighting systems in Senegal and sub-Saharan African countries that will begin within the next year.