The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, most commonly simply called EPEAT, is a product registry to help purchasers identify electronic devices with positive environmental attributes. Manufacturers and retailers can use the registry to highlight product offerings which meet criteria addressing materials selection, design for product longevity, reuse and recycling, energy conservation, end-of-life management and corporate performance. EPEAT was developed with a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is managed by the Green Electronics Council (GEC) .
The EPEAT registry has long included computers (including laptops and tablets) and displays, imaging equipment (e.g. printers, copiers, fax machines, scanners, multifunction devices, etc.), and televisions. Mobile phones were recently added, and servers are the latest product category addition.
The GEC is developing a new Environmental Benefits Calculator that measures the environmental and cost benefits of purchasing sustainable EPEAT-registered products. The new calculator will launch for the mobile phone category in September. The calculator will expand to include servers and the updated Computer and Display category by the end of the year.
Purchasers are invited to join GEC’s Patty Dillon, Acting Director of EPEAT Category Development, on September 19th for a live demonstration of the Mobile Phone Environmental Benefits Calculator. Learn how to use the calculator to quantify the sustainability benefits of purchasing EPEAT-registered IT products, as well as how to estimate savings resulting from extended use and recycling of those devices.
As electronics become more ubiquitous each day, the integration of smaller electronic components into ever more products continues, and renewable energy becomes an increasingly popular strategy for addressing climate change, the ability to store and supply power efficiently and safely is all the more important. So it’s no surprise that batteries have been a hot topic in the news for the past month or so. Let’s take a moment to consider some of the highlights of recent battery-related news.
We may as well start with the well-written piece by Geoffrey A. Fowler, the Washington Post’s technology columnist, published today (9/12/18): “The problem with recycling our old tech gadgets: They explode.” This is a good article about how design choices to make electronics thinner and more portable make the recycling of electronics more difficult and dangerous. Specifically because lithium-ion batteries are being incorporated into more products and smaller products, often without an easy–or any–way to remove those batteries. This isn’t just problematic for for extending the useful life of products. The trend makes the recycling of electronics increasingly risky while simultaneously making the economic feasibility of such efforts diminish. Recyclers need more time, special equipment, and training for proper handling, and they are at greater risk of damages caused by fires. As Fowler explains: “For all their benefits at making our devices slim, powerful and easy to recharge, lithium-ion batteries have some big costs. They contain Cobalt, often mined in inhumane circumstances in places like the Congo. And when crushed, punctured, ripped or dropped, lithium-ion batteries can produce what the industry euphemistically calls a “thermal event.” It happens because these batteries short circuit when the super-thin separator between their positive and negative parts gets breached. Remember Samsung’s exploding Note 7 smartphone? That was a lithium-ion thermal event.”
Fowler visits Cascade Asset Management, an electronics scrap processor in Madison, WI, to observe the process of removing a battery from an old iPad before the device can be sent through the shredder for recycling. My take away from this article: products need to be designed not only with sleek aesthetics and portability in mind, but also the ability to easily and safely upgrade, repair, and maintain them during their useful life and then to easily and safely reclaim parts and component materials when they have reached their end of useful life. Fowler concludes “So as a gadget reviewer, let me say this clearly to the tech industry: Give up your thin obsession. We’ll happily take electronics with a little extra junk in the trunk if it means we can easily replace batteries to make them last longer – and feel more confident they won’t end up igniting a recycling inferno.” Do agree with his sentiment? Consider voicing that opinion to the manufacturers of your favorite devices, and if you’re an industrial design student, heed well the lessons you can learn from this article.
As long as we’re on the subject of “thermal events,” consider this interesting research highlighted in this article provided by the American Chemical Society : “These lithium-ion batteries can’t catch fire because they harden on impact.” ‘Lithium-ion batteries commonly used in consumer electronics are notorious for bursting into flame when damaged or improperly packaged. These incidents occasionally have grave consequences, including burns, house fires and at least one plane crash. Inspired by the weird behavior of some liquids that solidify on impact, researchers have developed a practical and inexpensive way to help prevent these fires. They will present their results today at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). “In a lithium-ion battery, a thin piece of plastic separates the two electrodes,” Gabriel Veith, Ph.D., says. “If the battery is damaged and the plastic layer fails, the electrodes can come into contact and cause the battery’s liquid electrolyte to catch fire.” To make these batteries safer, some researchers instead use a nonflammable, solid electrolyte. But these solid-state batteries require significant retooling of the current production process, Veith says. As an alternative, his team mixes an additive into the conventional electrolyte to create an impact-resistant electrolyte. It solidifies when hit, preventing the electrodes from touching if the battery is damaged during a fall or crash. If the electrodes don’t touch each other, the battery doesn’t catch fire. Even better, incorporating the additive would require only minor adjustments to the conventional battery manufacturing process…In the future, Veith plans to enhance the system so the part of the battery that’s damaged in a crash would remain solid, while the rest of the battery would go on working. The team is initially aiming for applications such as drone batteries, but they would eventually like to enter the automotive market. They also plan to make a bigger version of the battery, which would be capable of stopping a bullet. That could benefit soldiers, who often carry 20 pounds of body armor and 20 pounds of batteries when they’re on a mission, Veith says. “The battery would function as their armor, and that would lighten the average soldier by about 20 pounds.”
Imagine the day when lithium-ion batteries might be an asset for safety instead of a liability!
Writing for the HOBI International blog, Alicia Cotton recently wrote that “Innovation is making lithium-ion batteries increasingly harder to recycle.” The point of her post was that as demand for lithium-ion batteries increase, manufacturers will look to produce them with cheaper materials, adversely impacting the economic incentives for recycling these batteries. ‘According to the Royal Chemistry Society, the cost of cobalt, which is heavily used as a cathode material in all batteries, jumped from $32,500 to $81,000 in just over a year. In response, battery manufacturers have opted to redesign batteries to minimize cobalt. In May, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company had all but eliminated cobalt from batteries it uses in automobile and stationary batteries. However, doing so will help keep batteries cheap — as in too cheap to recycle. Without valuable contents recyclers have little incentive to capture used batteries, Kaun said.‘ This is an interesting example of trade-offs and how considerations for sustainability are rarely simple. The use of cobalt in batteries is problematic not just due to the economic cost of the material, but also due to human rights issues related to cobalt sourcing. However, this article points out that as higher value materials are phased out of design, there is a negative impact on the economics of recycling. More work is clearly needed to create recycling incentives for lithium-ion batteries moving forward, as well as developing batteries which depend less on cobalt, and improving the sustainability of the cobalt supply chain.
In another recent post for the HOBI International blog, Cotton writes that a “New Material will Triple Storage Capacity of Lithium-Ion Batteries.” “Together in a joint effort, scientists from the University of Maryland (UMD), U.S. Army Research Lab and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) have been working hard to improve the storage capacity of lithium-ion batteries. Turns out, the use of extra cobalt was the answer. The scientists believe they can triple the energy density of lithium-ion battery electrodes.” Well, that would make those batteries not only have higher storage capacity, but also create an incentive for recycling them–but then we’re looking at the issues surrounding cobalt sourcing again. What did I say about trade-offs and how sustainable solutions are rarely simple? Sigh.
And, while we’re on the subject of sustainable solutions coming in shades of grey, here’s an example of how context can be important. As someone who advocates for waste reduction, I often talk about the need for more durable, repairable, upgradable goods and a move away from disposability. I certainly like to encourage people to use rechargeable batteries instead of single-use ones where they can. But there are situations in which disposable goods might actually foster sustainability, and yes, this is even true for batteries. Another recent update from the American Chemical Society discussed “A paper battery powered by bacteria.” Consider remote areas of the world where access to electricity is a luxury, or situation in which a natural disaster or other emergency has occurred leaving an area without access to power. Think about medical devices that would be needed to help victims of a disaster, or just be part of everyday medical support in remote areas. Paper is desirable for biosensors due to its flexibility, portability, high surface area, and inexpensive nature. “Choi and his colleagues at the State University of New York, Binghamton made a paper battery by printing thin layers of metals and other materials onto a paper surface. Then, they placed freeze-dried “exoelectrogens” on the paper. Exoelectrogens are a special type of bacteria that can transfer electrons outside of their cells. The electrons, which are generated when the bacteria make energy for themselves, pass through the cell membrane. They can then make contact with external electrodes and power the battery. To activate the battery, the researchers added water or saliva. Within a couple of minutes, the liquid revived the bacteria, which produced enough electrons to power a light-emitting diode and a calculator…The paper battery, which can be used once and then thrown away, currently has a shelf-life of about four months. Choi is working on conditions to improve the survival and performance of the freeze-dried bacteria, enabling a longer shelf life.“In a related article by Jason Deign for Greentech Media, Choi noted that in these low-power, low-cost situations, the paper battery could be used and then biodegrade without special treatment. Further reporting on this innovation is available in the IEEE Spectrum.
Now that you’ve read about all these innovations and the need for further innovations, you may be thinking, “Can someone please just tell what a lithium-ion battery is, the basics of how they work, and why we use them if there are so many problematic issues?!?!” Don’t worry–a recent post by Arthur Shi on the iFixit blog provides a nice overview with some links to more in-depth explanations if you’re interested.
From the May 1, 2018 edition of Science Daily: “Engineered nanomaterials hold great promise for medicine, electronics, water treatment, and other fields. But when the materials are designed without critical information about environmental impacts at the start of the process, their long-term effects could undermine those advances. A team of researchers hopes to change that.
In a study published in Nature Nanotechnology, Yale researchers outline a strategy to give materials designers the tools they need to make the necessary assessments efficiently and at the beginning of the design process. Engineers traditionally focus on the function and cost of their products. Without the information to consider long-term environmental impacts, though, it is difficult to predict adverse effects. That lack of information means that unintended consequences often go unnoticed until long after the product has been commercialized. This can lead to hastily replacing the material with another that proves to have equally bad, or even worse, effects. Having materials property information at the start of the design process could change that pattern. “As a researcher, if I have limited resources for research and development, I don’t want to spend it on something that’s not going to be viable due to its effects on human health,” said Julie Zimmerman, professor of chemical & environmental engineering and co-senior author of the study. “I want to know now, before I develop that product.” To that end, the researchers have developed a database that serves as a screening tool for environmentally sustainable material selection. It’s a chart that lists nanomaterials and assesses each for properties such as size, shape, and such performance characteristics as toxicity and antimicrobial activity. Mark Falinski, a PhD student and lead author of the study, said this information would allow researchers to weigh the different effects of the material before actually developing it.”
The database created by the research team also allows other researchers to enter information to improve the material selection framework. It includes engineered nanomaterials and conventional alternatives with human health and environmental metrics for all materials.
The research team includes scientists affiliated with Yale University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, City University of Hong Kong, and the University of Pittsburgh.
Read the referenced article in Nature Nanotechnology at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41565-018-0120-4. [Mark M. Falinski, Desiree L. Plata, Shauhrat S. Chopra, Thomas L. Theis, Leanne M. Gilbertson, Julie B. Zimmerman. A framework for sustainable nanomaterial selection and design based on performance, hazard, and economic considerations. Nature Nanotechnology, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41565-018-0120-4]
To learn more about the potential environmental and health impacts of nanotechnology, see the following:
Watch for Nanotechnology Environmental Health and Safety: Risks, Regulation, and Management, Third Edition, edited by Matthew Hull and Diana Bowman, due out in August 2018. See https://www.elsevier.com/books/nanotechnology-environmental-health-and-safety/hull/978-0-12-813588-4. This book “includes real-world case studies, wherever practical, to illustrate specific issues and scenarios encountered by stakeholders positioned on the frontlines of nanotechnology-enabled industries. Each case study will appeal and resonate with laboratory scientists, business leaders, regulators, service providers and postgraduate researchers.”
On Tuesday, August 22, the Illini Gadget Garage will be hosting a screening of the documentary Death by Design at the Champaign Public Library. Doors will open at 6:30 PM and the film will begin at 7:00. The film duration is 73 minutes.
The Illini Gadget Garage is a repair center that helps consumers with “do-it-together” troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues of electronics and small appliances. The project promotes repair as a means to keep products in service and out of the waste stream. The Illini Gadget Garage is coordinated by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.
Death by Design explores the environmental and human costs of electronics, particularly considering their impacts in the design and manufacture stages, bearing in mind that many electronic devices are not built to be durable products that we use for many years. Cell phones, for example, are items that consumers change frequently, sometimes using for less than 2 years before replacing with a new model. When we analyze the effort put into, and potential negative impacts of, obtaining materials for devices through efforts like mining, the exposure to potentially harmful substances endured by laborers in manufacturing plants, and the environmental degradation and human health risks associated with informal electronics recycling practices in various parts of the word, the idea that we might see these pieces of technology as “disposable” in any way becomes particularly poignant. For more information on the film, including reviews, see http://deathbydesignfilm.com/about/ and http://bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/dbd.html. You can also check out the trailer at the end of this post.
A team of chemists from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, have developed a way to process metals without toxic solvents and reagents. Their innovation could help reduce negative environmental impacts of metal extraction from raw materials and electronic scrap.
As reported by McGill, “The system, which also consumes far less energy than conventional techniques, could greatly shrink the environmental impact of producing metals from raw materials or from post-consumer electronics…In an article published recently in Science Advances, the researchers outline an approach that uses organic molecules, instead of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, to help purify germanium, a metal used widely in electronic devices. Laboratory experiments by the researchers have shown that the same technique can be used with other metals, including zinc, copper, manganese and cobalt.”
The development is an interesting example of biomimicry. Germanium is a semiconductor not found in substantial quantities in any one type of ore, so a series of processes are used to reduce mined materials with small quantities of the metal to a mixture of germanium and zinc. Isolation of germanium from the zinc in this resulting mixture involves what one of the researchers called “nasty processes.” For an alternative less dependent upon toxic materials and energy use, the researchers found inspiration in melanin, the pigment molecule present in skin, hair, and irises of humans and other animals. Besides contribution to coloration, melanin can bind to metals. The researchers synthesized a molecule that mimics some of melanin’s metal-binding qualities. Using it they were able to isolate germanium from zinc at room temperature, without solvents.
As the McGill article states, “The next step in developing the technology will be to show that it can be deployed economically on industrial scales, for a range of metals.”
To learn more about germanium and its applications (including fiber-optics, infrared optics, solar electric applications, and LEDs), see the Wikipedia article on germanium at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanium.
The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) regularly produces industry roadmaps. According to the iNEMI web site, “Each edition is a global collaborative effort that involves many individuals who are leading experts in their respective fields and represent many perspectives on the electronics manufacturing supply chain. Our roadmap has become recognized as an important tool for defining the “state of the art” in the electronics industry as well as identifying emerging and disruptive technologies. It also includes keys to developing future iNEMI projects and setting industry R&D priorities over the next 10 years.”
The latest edition of the iNEMI roadmap will go on sale this month. In preparation, iNEMI is previewing highlights from select chapters in the following two webinars:
Asia (April 6): Internet of Things (IoT) and Packaging & Components Substrates chapters
North America/Europe (April 7): IoT and Sustainable Electronics chapters
The purpose of these webinars is to introduce the 2017 iNEMI Roadmap and identify key issues and needs, collect feedback during the Q & A session for ongoing gap analysis purposes, recruit participation in in the development of the iNEMI Technical Plan, and recruit participation in the next roadmap development cycle. (See http://community.inemi.org/content.asp?contentid=56 for information on the 2015 Technical Plan.)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently announced that 13 proposals had been selected for funding as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which “invests in transformative architectures through the development of pioneering technologies.” According to the press release, “NIAC Phase I awards are valued at approximately $100,000 for nine months, to support initial definition and analysis of their concepts. If these basic feasibility studies are successful, awardees can apply for Phase II awards, valued up to $500,000 for two additional years of concept development.” Read the full press release on the NASA web site.
“Space missions rely utterly on metallic components, from the spacecraft to electronics. Yet, metals add mass, and electronics have the additional problem of a limited lifespan. Thus, current mission architectures must compensate for replacement. In space, spent electronics are discarded; on earth, there is some recycling but current processes are toxic and environmentally hazardous. Imagine instead an end-to-end recycling of spent electronics at low mass, low cost, room temperature, and in a non-toxic manner. Here, we propose a solution that will not only enhance mission success by decreasing upmass and providing a fresh supply of electronics, but in addition has immediate applications to a serious environmental issue on the Earth. Spent electronics will be used as feedstock to make fresh electronic components, a process we will accomplish with so-called ‘urban biomining’ using synthetically enhanced microbes to bind metals with elemental specificity. To create new electronics, the microbes will be used as ‘bioink’ to print a new IC chip, using plasma jet electronics printing. The plasma jet electronics printing technology will have the potential to use martian atmospheric gas to print and to tailor the electronic and chemical properties of the materials. Our preliminary results have suggested that this process also serves as a purification step to enhance the proportion of metals in the ‘bioink’. The presence of electric field and plasma can ensure printing in microgravity environment while also providing material morphology and electronic structure tunabiity and thus optimization. Here we propose to increase the TRL level of the concept by engineering microbes to dissolve the siliceous matrix in the IC, extract copper from a mixture of metals, and use the microbes as feedstock to print interconnects using mars gas simulant. To assess the ability of this concept to influence mission architecture, we will do an analysis of the infrastructure required to execute this concept on Mars, and additional opportunities it could offer mission design from the biological and printing technologies. In addition, we will do an analysis of the impact of this technology for terrestrial applications addressing in particular environmental concerns and availability of metals.”
Note that “TRL” refers to “Technology Readiness Level,” a measure of the technological maturity of a concept, indicative of the degree to which it has developed beyond the initial faults and unforeseen problems that inevitably arise when something theoretical is brought into practice. NASA TRL definitions help characterize whether a concept is ready for use in space flight during missions or has been “flight proven” as part of successful missions.
Though the idea is geared toward making missions to Mars more practical in terms of the weight of materials needed to pack for missions and dealing with the lack of a local repair shop in the event of a device breakdown, the concept–if successful–could have obvious positive impacts on sustainable electronic product design and responsible management of the ever-growing stream of discarded electronics here on Earth. This could end up becoming one more example of how technology developed to enable space exploration could have benefits to humans in their everyday terrestrial lives. NASA has published an annual accounting of such technologies called “Spinoff” since 1976.
Manuscripts are still being accepted for the special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.”
From the issue’s rationale:
“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.
While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.
It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”
If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at email@example.com, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste#info. The deadline for manuscript submissions is December 31, 2015. Questions may be addressed to co-guest editor Joy Scrogum.
I’m pleased that a concept submitted by UIUC students, NEO, was a runner up in the competition. NEO involves the reuse of smartphones as low-cost computers for teaching programming to kids, thus addressing e-waste, digital divide, and education issues simultaneously. This innovative idea was created by Elizabeth Reuter, Kevin Lehtiniitty, and Biplab Deka.
The winning concept from students at UC Berkeley, TouchCart, involves using old cellphones to make finding items easier in grocery stores while also allowing scanning of items during shopping. It also allows connection to customer service, and quick check out. The other runners up, StreetSmart from Ohio State University, involves used cellphones as in-car technology to help track driving habits. This would allow insurance companies to more easily reward safe drivers with lower rates. The winning team received $5,000, which can be used toward attending a Startup Weekend to help take their business idea to the next level. And they’ll also receive strategic guidance from executives at Sprint, Brightstar, and HOBI to strengthen the team’s business model.
Despite not winning this particular competition, Team NEO is participating in other student competitions to raise funds to bring this worthy concept to reality. Join me in wishing them all the best in these pursuits, and congratulations for their achievements thus far.
In a previous post, I wrote about a new electronics-related competition debuted this year: the Smartphone Encore Challenge. The Challenge is a collaboration of Sprint, HOBI International, Brightstar, and Net Impact in which student teams were challenged to find profitable and innovative ways to repurpose old smartphones or their components. Participation was limited to the first 25 teams or individuals to register.
The winning individual or team will receive $5,000, which can be used toward attending a Startup Weekend to help take their business idea to the next level. The winners will also receive strategic guidance from executives at Sprint, Brightstar, and HOBI to strengthen their business model.
I can’t wait to see what the winning students have come up with! For more inspiring sustainable electronics ideas from college and university students, visit the Sustainable Electronics Initiative YouTube channel, where you can find winning entry videos from past years of the SEI International Sustainable Electronics Competition.