Innovation India-style, by IBM

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Published: December 11, 2014 1:28:22 AM

IBM has brought fresh cheer to neighbourhood vegetable-sellers...

IBM has brought fresh cheer to neighbourhood vegetable-sellers, who fan out every evening with their carts full of produce illuminated by cheap LED lamps in colours designed to highlight their goodness—red for tomatoes, green for spinach and white for radish and cauliflower. Big Blue has successfully trialled an unusual idea in Bangalore, using spent laptop batteries to power LED lamps, which could reduce the problem of e-waste while improving the lives of people such as vegetable-sellers, who are poorly connected to power grid.

It’s not exactly rocket science. Laptops are typically rated 40 or 60 watts, so a new battery can power an incandescent bulb, and a spent one, whose output has fallen below 40 watts, can light up LEDs, which run on very low power. IBM finds that a discarded battery can power an LED lamp four hours a day for a year. Add a charging circuit, which is trivial to design and incredibly cheap to manufacture, and you should, theoretically, have the cheapest possible source of light, barring sunshine. Oddly enough, however, the estimated price of R600 is 20 times the cost of a basic LED light juiced by a mobile charger, which is available from the unorganised sector in India.

The IBM device would reduce e-waste, of course, but abstemious India commercially incentivised recycling so many generations before the western markets that waste reduction seems like old hat. The US learned to pay people to junk their cars just a decade ago—and even then, owners had to drive long distances to collection centres—while the Indian kabari-wallah has been carting off whole cars for princely sums, quite possibly from the time that the first vintage cars were delivered to India’s maharajas.

Here, the problem is not so much the recycling of e-waste and consumer goods as the regulation of recycling. Until recently, kabadi-wallahs used to make headlines by picking up radioactive material unsafely trashed by labs. Many lives and livelihoods have been spectacularly lost to radiation burns in this manner. Those lurid stories no longer make the front pages, perhaps because the owners of radioactive material have been burned so many times by scandals that they have learned safe disposal practices without even trying. But, in the meantime, the boom in consumer electronics and communications hardware has raised a wave of e-waste. Despite rules framed by the ministry of environment and forests in 2012, it is estimated that nationally, less than 2% of e-waste is properly treated. Conurbations such as the National Capital Region have become hot zones of e-waste. While the recycling of automobile batteries has been reined in following concern about cadmium and lead from the plates leaching into groundwater, what about the lithium from the batteries for laptops, tablets and mobile phones?

That could be a happy story, ironically. Lithium is used clinically to treat bipolar disorder. In subclinical doses, too, it may have a salutary effect. In 2009, researchers at Oita University in Japan discovered a small but statistically significant negative correlation between suicide rates and the level of lithium in groundwater in 18 municipalities they studied. Of course, the levels found were orders of magnitude lower than clinical dosages, but another correlation suggested that lithium may actually reduce the tendency to slash one’s wrists. While it fails to stabilise the moods of some bipolar people, even they are less likely to take their own lives after therapy than similar people untreated with lithium. If such a thing is conceivable, lithium may have a suicide-proofing effect at very low dosages.

But we digress. Our theme was not the use of lithium at low dosages, but the reuse of spent electrical storage to run low-power devices. Energy storage will remain a serious issue over the coming decade, through which the price of solar power is expected to drop. To the delight of libertarians, US prices per watt fell in double-digits in 2013, a joint study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory reported, 19% being the upper figure. Private, consumer-generated green energy, dismissed as a pipe dream a decade ago, could be an everyday reality a decade from now.

But since night is an everyday reality too, the storage of solar energy generated during the day would be at least half of any success story. Assuming that solar panel prices will continue to plummet, the other half would be the development of low-power devices, many of which already exist. An LED panel is a low-power light-bulb, a smartphone is a low-power computer, and so on. Storage remains an issue and while IBM’s solution with spent laptop batteries is seriously more expensive than the offerings of the unorganised sector, the fact that one of the biggest global brands is taking interest in small, retail energy storage can only accelerate innovation and research.

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