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Graduate Students Create Recyclable Laptop

A new laptop designed by students may not self-destruct in 30 seconds, but it can be disassembled in about that amount of time, which makes it easier to safely dispose of when it’s time to throw it out.

A group of seven graduate students, from Stanford University and Finland’s Aalto University, created a prototype of a recyclable laptop as a project for a corporate-sponsored mechanical-engineering class.

The invention, called the Bloom laptop, is made mostly of materials that can be recycled alongside ordinary household items, like metal, plastic, and glass. Materials like LCD screens and circuit boards, which need to be sent to specialized recycling facilities, can be easily separated in a few steps.

“I think where the group really nailed it on the head is where they tried to understand how to modify consumer behavior in a way that would promote green thinking,” said John Feland, who leads the Stanford class involved in the project. “If the design of the computer involves the consumer in the process of changing the environment, it becomes easier for people to do the right thing.”

The group was one of 10 teams in the Stanford engineering design class that received a challenge from a corporate sponsor, Autodesk. The company wanted a completely recyclable consumer-electronics product. However, the choice of the product was completely up to the students.

Aaron Engel-Hall, a Stanford mechanical-engineering graduate student and one of the group members, said making that decision took nearly nine months for the group. Through testing, the group discovered that it took them an average of 45 minutes and 120 steps to dismantle an ordinary laptop.

The students were also intrigued by the relatively short life of a laptop, averaging around two years, since that short life span increased the pace that waste entered the environment. These discoveries, Mr. Engel-Hall said, inspired the group to focus their attention on simplifying the laptop deconstruction process by designing pieces that could slide or snap apart, resulting in an end-product that Mr. Feland calls “where origami meets electronic engineering.”

In addition to encouraging recycling of old laptops, Mr. Feland said the Bloom design could also be both a more economical and greener laptop in other ways. The design makes it easier for consumers to replace the parts themselves, rather than scrap it if something goes wrong, he said.

Mr. Feland acknowledged that there are some minor technical hurdles in the design that need to be overcome before it can be produced for a wider market—such as the prototype’s size and weight.

The design has yet to be embraced by any laptop manufacturers, but all of the ideas are openly available through Autodesk’s Web site. Mr. Feland said corporate-sponsored classes have been a part of Stanford for 45 years, because they allow students to work on solutions for real problems companies are facing with the opportunity to experiment and fail—a luxury he said the real world doesn’t provide.

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