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Pop Goes the Cell Phone
Jeremy Faludi, 4 Apr 06

As TechOnline points out, "In less than five minutes, trained workers at recycling centers can manually disassemble a computer and sort all of its plastics and its ferrous and nonferrous metals in preparation for recycling." But five minutes costs money. Today most cell phones and other small electronics are shredded instead of taken apart for recycling, because the disassembly time is too expensive for the amount of material reclaimed.

What if the product disassembled itself, in one second?

That's what Active Disassembly is all about. Screws that lose their threads and lengthen to push themselves out. Hooks that straighten to unhook and push the other piece away. Adhesives that melt or dissolve. Plastic parts that depolymerize into powder. All these and more are not just fantasies, they've been done in the lab for a couple years, and are getting closer to hitting the shelves:

Nokia has prototyped a cell phone that pops itself apart in two seconds, as opposed to the two minutes normally required for manual disassembly. Their diagram shows how they use shape memory alloy springs to push apart the snap-together plastic case and pop the circuit board off, use shape memory polymer screws which lose their threading, and use shape memory polymer screw bosses which expand to release the now unthreaded screws.

All of these shape memory materials are actuated by heating them up with a laser. The temperatures involved are around 60-150 ÂșC, cool enough to not melt the surrounding plastic but hot enough to not be easily triggered accidentally. ...Though in many parts of the world you'd have to watch where you set your phone on a hot sunny day. I know this isn't a problem in Finland, but they'll have to do some environmental testing before wide release--having software crash is one thing, but having your phone / laptop / camera / car spontaneously collapse into its component parts is a whole other level of "usability issue".

Nokia is not the first player in this game: various academic research has been done, and there is at least one company--Active Disassembly Research--that works exclusively on this. Active Disassembly does technology, logistics, and policy-related work in the field, and they have a great video gallery showing how some of these things work: screws unthreading, rivets and hooks unhooking, reversible glues sloughing off, ribbons and washers becoming springs to push components apart, etc.

Because many of these methods use snap-together fasteners that release on cue, it could also help manufacturers improve assembly times as well. Traditionally one of the reasons to avoid snap-together systems is the difficulty of disassembly for repair and maintenance, but if service technicians had portable devices to set off the active fasteners (probably just a heater of some sort, since most of these shape memory materials are heat-activated), this problem could be avoided. Plus, if the actuator were specialized (say, inductive or laser heating), it could allow products which are easily opened up by official service technicians but unopenable by the average consumer. Although the hackers and open-sourcers among us cringe at that, many companies would love the idea.

Whatever the specific incarnations of active disassembly, reducing breakdown time from minutes to seconds can make product recycling much more viable. With the WEEE and other take-back legislation coming down the pipe, the manufacturers will have to start paying for that time instead of governments or third-party recyclers, which is why manufacturers are starting to get interested in Design for Disassembly. We'll no doubt begin seeing spontaneous pop-apart products along with the myriad other strategies.

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Wow, great post, Jer! We've talked about this stuff before, and I honestly didn't quite get what you were telling me, but now I see how totally transformative this stuff could be.

Active Disassembly: I want it now!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Apr 06

i love this! having recently taken an industrial ecology course where we had to disassemble something to do a life cycle analysis, I can definitely attest to how time consuming it can be to disassemble even a simple product. i've thought about the applications of memory plastics but not as regarded fasteners. this is too cool for words, which is why they made all of those slick movies!!

Posted by: greg on 4 Apr 06

*in unabomber accent*

"you see, I don't dismantle phones. it is my
preference to see things...(hiss)..... explode."

I hate cellphones. I could only come to talking terms with a model that can harakiri in style. and this seems perfect, but I have to hold it to believe it.

A few years ago I'd written about some American woman who was making a $10 dosposable cellphone the size of a credit card. She had lots of attitude too. That invention of hers never came out, or I would have bought it.

Cellphone designers obviously have no idea how much fun it is to throw a cellphone against a wall, out of the window...

We don't want "user-friendly" machines. We have many friends who are useful too. We want machines to obey our orders quitely and not ask stupid questions. Slaves, thats what we want. Not some freaking BSOD telling us when it is 'safe" for me to turn it off and on. Do your job, and dissappear.


Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 4 Apr 06

I remember reading a general article about this a few years ago in New Scientist. One other property that was mentioned was the ability to change colour. Perhaps, just prior to self destruct on a hot car dashboard, the phone turned a vivid scarlet?
(Although it sounds like it might induce a pavlovian response in Rohit!)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 4 Apr 06

Plus we need to connect this with fablabs, and also with BOP (bottom of the pyramid) value creation, etc.

We may even have time to learn all this and be able to flip from "globalization mode" into "non globalization mode" if there's need to.

Or maybe that can be called "postglob" or "newglob" mode?

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 5 Apr 06

Well there are only a few parts in a cell phone worth recycling. The mem card the screen and the battery are the main value.

Other then the screen those are easy to take out.

The rest its better to pulverize and sort the bits for metals.

Posted by: wintermane on 5 Apr 06

" The rest its better to pulverize and sort the bits for metals"

When it comes to cell phone cases, there are a wide variety of both metals and plastics used. Pulverizing a call phone does allow easy sorting for metal bits (since metals have varying melting points, magnetic attraction, etc.) However, once the various types of plastics from multiple cell phones have been mixed together as tiny chips - it's pretty impossible to separate again by different resin. Therefore the plastic mass is either "downcycled" into something like plastic lumber or simply burned for energy. Active dissembly would allow for possible reuse of cases in good condition or allow for proper plastic sorting, which would be a step closer on the path to true recycling of the plastics.

Posted by: Cat on 5 Apr 06

This sounds very cool for those situations where screws and such are necessary, but re-designing products to allow for screw-less disassembly has the added advantage of reducing the number of component parts and materials (I spoke with some folks at Dell's sustainability initiative this morning that argued this very point, as it happens).

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 5 Apr 06



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