Good Thinking

Discarded laptop batteries could be used to power homes

Batteries from old laptops could find new life ... in UrJars (Photo: Shutterstock)
Batteries from old laptops could find new life ... in UrJars (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Batteries from old laptops could find new life ... in UrJars (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Batteries from old laptops could find new life ... in UrJars (Photo: Shutterstock)

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.

Source: IBM

4 comments
Naum Shuv
At last! We were using a similar solution 13 years ago in archaeological expedition camp in Russia
Gregg Eshelman
A common failure of laptop batteries is only part of the cells will go bad, or part of the monitoring system will fail so the laptop refuses to charge the otherwise good battery. In some cases, laptops have had a pre-set "death" where a non-resettable charge counter was built into the battery. That is especially rotten, something IBM did on some of their Thinkpad line. The fix was a couple pieces of electrical tape over some of the contacts to block the laptop from reading the charge counter. Hopefully this outfit is individually discharging the cells to the minimum allowed (discharge a Lithium-Ion cell to far and it ruined) then charging each one as much as it will take. Then the cells should be sorted by capacity into balanced packs, with at least one thermal monitoring sensor. One bad cell in a pack can make it explode due to the good cells attempting to self-balance the charge level. Search for exploding lithium flashlight battery The typical solid aluminum construction of a high-end LED flashlight can contain the heat and pressure from a "runaway" lithium cell until it bursts. A plastic cased battery pack will soften from the heat then blow out and may catch on fire. That's what happened to some early Apple laptops that were among the first to use lithium batteries, then had to fall back on Nickel Metal Hydride replacements.
JPWhite
This is a great idea. I love the combination of a community solar array together with these batteries and low draw LED lights. In a few years, Used EV Batteries and battery packs will start to appear on the market for refurbishing. An EV battery is considered end-of-life when it reaches 70% of original capacity. The batteries are otherwise perfectly serviceable and will be in good shape. EV Batteries could power refrigeration and fans in remote areas of the world, improving their quality of life tremendously.
christopher
What a fantastic way to rid America of heavy metals, lithium, and other toxic wastes, and spread the problem around a poor country with no working waste or recycling system, and no public education as to the dangers!