A new project by IBM Research India could help repurpose a major e-waste stream while also helping millions have access to light in areas where electricity is scarce.
The EPA estimates that 50 million laptop and desktop computers are discarded in the United States every year. In India alone, about 400 million people lack grid-connected electricity. Connecting those two things together, the IBM project plans to use salvaged laptop batteries to power LED lights in developing nations.
Other lighting solutions for developing regions have involved using LED lights connected to a solar-powered rechargeable battery, but this new solution could be far cheaper, meaning it could reach even more people.
“The most costly component in these systems is often the battery,” says Vikas Chandan, a research scientist at the lab’s Smarter Energy Group, who led the project. “In this case, the most expensive part of your storage solution is coming from trash.”
The research group took discarded laptop batteries and tore them open to remove the individual storage cells. They tested them and reassembled a battery pack of just the good cells. Charging dongles and some circuitry were added and then these kits were given to users in Bangalore who lived in slums or operated sidewalk carts and needed lighting.
After a test period of three months, the battery packs had worked without issue. The users put in requests for rat-resistant wiring and brighter light bulbs for the kits, both of which are being included in revisions before a final version is made.
The group says that at least 70 percent of all computer batteries that are thrown out have enough life left to power an LED bulb for a year, based on four hours a day of use. That means that there are plenty of batteries with working cells out there that could be used for a much better purpose than piling up as e-waste and polluting the earth.
IBM said it is not planning on pursuing this as a business opportunity, but would offer these kits free to poor countries where they're needed.