IBM Research wants laptop batteries to retire and slum it

Old Li-IONs have enough roar to lighten up the lives of those living on dodgy grids

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IBM's Indian research lab has come up with a nice idea: using old laptop batteries too feeble to power a ThinkPad as off-grid power sources.

In a paper [PDF] titled “UrJar: A Lighting Solution using Discarded Laptop Batteries”, IBM and Radio Studio India boffins explain that “Forty percent of the world’s population, including a significant portion of the rural and urban poor sections of the population in India, does not have access to reliable electricity supply.”

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, people are tossing out old laptop batteries at a growing rate. While plenty of countries are finding ways to process the resulting e-waste, the authors cite various sources to explain that lithium ion batteries require rather more effort to recycle than to manufacture. Re-use, rather than recycling, is therefore a preferred option.

The paper proposes a device called an “UrJar” that would be charged when an electrical grid is on and pack enough juice to power a light bulb at night. UrJars are arrays of old laptop batteries, re-assembled into viable rigs that despite being too feeble to run a laptop can, in concert, provide a few hours of power for a light, fan or USB charger.

An important consideration in the study addresses whether an UrJar would be cheaper than other energy sources. Based on analysis of some pilots, the authors suggest that the devices would be cheaper than the fuel needed to power lights at night, and would therefore likely have plenty of upside for folks like small shopkeepers who want to trade longer into the evening.

The paper notes there's a long way to go to get a batter-recycling ecosystem fully charged, but this paper does at least show there's a noble fate awaiting your old power bricks. ®

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