Grad students build ‘recyclable’ laptop

Nov. 8, 2010, 3:04 a.m.
Grad students build ‘recyclable’ laptop
Stanford students co-designed a recyclable laptop. They say it can be disassembled in 30 seconds and in 10 steps. (Courtesy of Aaron Engel-Hall)

A group of mechanical engineering graduate students have created a “recyclable laptop” that can be completely disassembled by hand in under 30 seconds.

As part of a corporate-sponsored design class, Mechanical Engineering 310, “Project Based Design, Engineering and Development,” the Stanford students collaborated with students at Finland’s Aalto University to design and build the “Bloom” prototype laptop over the course of a year.

At the beginning of 2009, Autodesk, the team’s assigned sponsor, asked the students to create a fully recyclable consumer-electronics product using the company’s design software.

After the team decided on a laptop as their product of choice, they set about addressing the ways in which traditional laptops are not eco-friendly. According to team member Aaron Engel-Hall ’09 M.S. ’10, this meant making it easy to remove the “bad apples” — components such as the circuit boards — from the rest of laptop.

“Almost everything in a laptop is theoretically recyclable,” Engel-Hall said. “It’s mostly metal, plastic and glass. The problem is that the metal, plastic and glass are completely integrated [with the rest of the laptop], and we need to separate them before they can be recycled.”

The Bloom can be disassembled by hand in 30 seconds and in 10 steps. A traditional laptop, on the other hand, requires three tools and about 120 steps and can take up to 45 minutes to disassemble.

Additionally, the Bloom contains an envelope with prepaid postage behind the screen, which customers can use to send circuit boards to a specialized recycling facility.

Engel-Hall and his Stanford team members, Rohan Bhobe ’09 M.S. ’09 and Kirstin Gail ’09 M.S. ’09, spent the first six months of the academic year conducting user testing and research to determine why people do not currently recycle their electronics, specifically their laptops, and what would make them more likely to do so. Then they collaborated with four students at Aalto University in Finland on the actual design and construction. Engel-Hall said the 10-hour time difference between California and Finland actually helped the group as they neared their deadline.

“We would work around the clock and then, as we were going to bed, they were waking up, and we’d Skype briefly and tell them what needed to be done,” he said.

The Finnish students, in turn, would Skype the Stanford students at the end of their day as the sun was rising on Palo Alto and relay further instructions to them.

The team brainstormed several project ideas before deciding on a recyclable laptop, including toys that can change as children grow older, remote-control explosives and a phone with a bamboo seed that customers can water at the end of the phone’s life. (The seed would then sprout, crack the phone and continue growing out of it.) The team ultimately chose the laptop, said Engel-Hall, in order to generate the widest set of criteria for sustainable design.

“We decided the laptop would be best because it’s so difficult and shares almost all problems of recycling that other electronics have,” he said. “If we can make a laptop recyclable, we can apply those lessons to anything else.”

For their efforts, the team received the award for Autodesk Inventor of the Month. The laptop is still in prototype, or “proof-of-concept,” form and has not been picked up by any laptop manufacturers, although Engel-Hall said the team “might be interested” in developing the technology further at some point.

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