Most of the toxic e-waste that ‘developed’ nations produce eventually ends up in the ‘developing’ world, where people who no longer have other means of generating an income often work with the toxic materials to extract metals and eke out a living. It isn’t something that immediately comes to mind for most people when they are buying a shiny new computer, but it is the current reality — the toxic materials that are used to construct the electronics of the modern world almost invariably find themselves being burned, deconstructed, and dumped in poorer nations, contaminating the land and water of these places and having a very negative effect on the health of the humans and animals which live there.
But now, an engineering sciences undergraduate at Harvard — Rachel Field — may have come up with a partial solution to this problem. She has designed a simple, cheap pedal-powered means of extracting the valuable metals from the other materials without the use of heat, and while in a completely sealed enclosure, offering some protection to those working with the materials. The invention is called “Bicyclean.”
Bicyclean is essentially just a pedal-powered grindstone which can completely crush entire circuit boards, while capturing the dust in a sealed polycarbonate enclosure — but the design may perhaps be of great use to those who regularly work with the toxic materials. The design recently won the silver award at the Acer Foundation’s Incredible Green Contest in Taiwan. As a result of the $35,000 prize, Field is now planning to return to Ghana to test a 2nd-generation prototype.
The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences provides background:
A slum on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, received major media attention in 2010 and 2011 when the outside world realized where computers go to die. In an area called Agbogbloshie, impoverished residents were burning broken electronic parts, discarded and dumped by wealthier nations, to extract the metal components. Crouched around bonfires, they inhaled toxic smoke and unwittingly leached heavy metals into a nearby river, just to eke out a living.
Harvard undergraduate Rachel Field read the news reports and devoted her senior thesis project to addressing the problem. Captivated by the problem in her senior year, Field dove headfirst into her research. Supported by a grant from the Harvard Committee on African Studies, she traveled to Agbogbloshie in January 2012, and spent her month-long winter break meeting the community and observing their work.
“It really does look surreal,” she says. “An otherworldly place. When I first got there, it was just completely shocking and unbelievable that people would expose themselves to this hazard. But, obviously, most of the people who work there are living in these slums that are right next to it.”
“I knew it was very important to the project that I see what was going on first hand, and that I really talk to people,” she explains. “There was a phase where I had this vision of building something like those emergency trailers that go out after big storms, but with a little chemical lab in it. Of course, once I went there, I realized that would make no sense.
“What’s interesting, though, is that a lot of guys there know how to weld. There are a lot of very talented craftsmen, because they’re already using these types of skills to very expertly dismantle the electronics.”
What would be useful, would be a device which the Ghanaians could actually create themselves, Field realized, which is what got her thinking about bicycles. With the help of design preceptor Joe Zinter and specialist Jordan Stephens, Field then created a list of goals and constraints for any potential designs. “I thought, well, what do I not want them to do? I don’t want people to be directly exposed to toxins, and if that’s one of the parameters then I don’t want people to have to use heat. I want this to be something that people can afford and build from materials that are already available to them.”
Parameters easily met by using bicycle parts — bicycles are ubiquitous throughout much of the world, and are portable, relatively inexpensive, and don’t require fuel or electricity — hence the selected design.
With the prize money from winning the Incredible Green Contest, Field now plans to head back to Agbogbloshie and to work on the creation of a 2nd-generation prototype.
“I didn’t ever want to be someone who just stopped by for a month, saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll totally help you out,’ and then never show up again, so this is pretty exciting,” she explains. “When I got to send that message to them, it was a really good moment for me. At the end of the day, the site is still there, the problem’s still there, and hopefully this is going to be part of the solution.”
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