A study by IBM researchers has revealed that many discarded laptop batteries have the potential to provide enough power to keep the lights running in homes in poorer countries around the world. The India-based team conducted a small study to test the viability of the idea, with work now focused on streamlining a prototype system.
For most of us, lighting our homes is as simple as flipping a switch, but there are still huge swathes of the global population without easy access to electricity – in fact, there are more than 400 million people without grid-connected electricity in India alone. The World Bank estimates that the cost of extending the energy grid to be between US$8,000 and $10,000 per kilometer. It’s a huge problem, and one that requires a sustainable, low-cost solution.
That’s where the IBM study comes in. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that somewhere in the region of 50 million laptop or desktop computers are discarded in the United States each and every year, with many of them still carrying perfectly serviceable lithium-ion batteries.
The Bangalore-based team worked with a research firm called RadioStudio, taking apart used batteries, testing and selecting working cells, and adding charging dongles and overheating prevention, before putting them back together to form refurbished batteries packs. They found that at least 70 percent of discarded batteries were able to power an LED light for a minimum of four hours a day for a full year.
Five refurbished batteries, known as UrJars, were given to street-side shop operators in Bangalore, who reported back three months later that the packs had done their job admirably, praising the lengthy up times of the lights. The team is now working on an improved version of the prototype battery, addressing user feedback requests for brighter bulbs and rat-proof wires.
The IBM researchers envisage the system working in conjunction with a network of solar-powered community charging stations, where users could go to charge up their UrJars for free.
The company currently has no plans to commercialize the trechnology, but believes that it could be an effective, non-profit way of providing off-grid power in developing nations.