UI-based competition brings ideas for technology reuse, recycling

UI-based competition brings ideas for technology reuse, recycling

CHAMPAIGN — Got an old 35-mm film camera stuffed in a drawer somewhere? Don't junk it just yet.

Some enterprising students have come up with a potential way to convert it to a digital camera.

Or turn a computer scanner into an inexpensive microscope that can diagnose skin cancer and other diseases.

Or design a cloud-based mobile phone that you can update, restyle and keep forever.

Those were among the winning ideas in the 2012 International E-Waste Competition sponsored by the Sustainable Electronics Initiative at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.

The annual competition started in 2009 as part of a class taught by William Bullock, a UI professor of industrial design, to encourage students to think of ways to reuse electronic components that would otherwise end up in landfills. Students were asked to create mockups of their ideas — not necessarily working prototypes — and display them on the UI Quad.

The following year, the competition was expanded to include contestants from around the world who submitted ideas through online videos, said Joy Scrogum, project coordinator for the competition and co-coordinator for the Sustainable Electronics Initiative. Industrial design professors at other universities also have assigned the contest to their students.

Corporate sponsors provide prize money, and winners receive cash awards.

"It's been really interesting and sort of amazing and inspiring to see these students from all over the world come together and present ideas," Scrogum said.

This year's winners were announced in December. A team from the UI took third place in the "reuse" category for a fluorescence microscope made out of a recycled scanner.

The concept was submitted by a recent graduate in electrical engineering, Dustin Gallegos, and two current students, Lillian Hislop, a biomedical engineering major, and Zhan Hao "Charley" Xi, who is in general studies.

Fluorescence microscopy is a technique widely used in medical practice and research to detect proteins and cell cultures, allowing doctors to diagnose malaria, skin cancer and other diseases, the students said. Biological specimens are labeled with fluorescence to visually track them, so scientists can monitor how tissues grow or test if certain types of cells are present, Hislop said in a recent interview.

The typical computer scanner has a lens, lamp and mirror, which are also the basic components for a microscope. A fluorescence microscope essentially works the same way as a scanner, by shining a light and then analyzing the reflected light, Hislop said.

The students engineered the scanner with lenses and filters necessary to read and interpret the fluorescent signals.

"Flatbed scanners are very common items. Most households have at least one, and thousands of perfectly usable scanners are disposed of every year. There is very little alteration needed to turn a scanner into a fluorescence microscope since they essentially preform the same function," Hislop said.

"Our design could allow more communities to enter the forefront of medical technology," improving health while reducing waste, according to the group's video presentation. The UI team received a $1,000 prize.

Taking the $3,000 first prize in that category was a pair of industrial design students from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, J. Makai Catudio and Ryan Barnes.

They submitted a concept for a digitizer that would turn a film-based camera into a digital camera using the latest image-sensor technology. It would replace the film capsule in the camera with a digitizer made from reprocessed printed circuit boards, among the most difficult components to recycle, the team said. The digitizer would have an image sensor card and USB port.

The device would repurpose aging cameras, reduce future digital camera waste and reuse materials otherwise headed to landfills, the team said.

The "EverCloud" phone system, designed by a team from Auburn University, took first place in the "prevention" category. The five students — Sean Kennedy, Christi Talbert, Dylan Piper-Kaiser, Sarah Caudle and Daniel Piquero — designed a modular phone platform based on cloud computing that could be personalized and easily updated so that phones wouldn't become outmoded so quickly.

The modular design would make it easier to replace broken parts or swap them out for a new style. And the user's contacts, games and other information would be stored on a central server rather than the handset, speeding up processing time.

Not all the students plan to take their ideas to market, but some winners from past years have begun to develop them into products — including the Boombottle (http://bit.ly/S7BCvV), a portable audio system made out of discarded plastic, reused speaker components and LED lights.

"Coming up with these ideas prepares them well to go out into the world, particularly as industrial designers, where they will be making products and pitching them to clients," Scrogum said.

To see videos and more information on the winning designs: http://www.sustainelectronics.illinois.edu/


Other ideas

Here are some of the other winners in the 2012 International E-Waste Design Competition:

— The Loopbook, third place in the "prevention" category, by Damian Coughlan of the University of Limerick, Ireland.

Made entirely from recycled materials, this combination notebook/tablet computer would be upgradable and easy to repair, its designer says. The core computing module, containing the processor, memory and storage, is upgradable and removable, so it could be used in a new computer body. It also features a telescopic stem that allows the screen to slide out, revealing a keyboard underneath, and be raised up and used as a laptop or notebook computer.

— The Energy Efficient Electricity (E3) Power Outlet, second place in "prevention," by John Lee, Soyoung Bae and Sam Sauceda from California State University at Long Beach.

E3 is a home monitoring energy system designed to help homeowners lower energy bills and prolong the life of their appliances. By installing a home meter and specialized outlets made of recycled plastic and electronic components, homeowners can monitor the energy use of appliances and electronics. Using a smart phone app, a homeowner can disconnect chargers and other devices when they're not in use to avoid "phantom" energy use, thus reducing CO2 emissions. The lifespan of cell phone batteries and other devices are often shortened through overcharging and overheating. The app can also determine the best times to use an appliance or device to avoid peak hours.

— The Wake Up Project, second place "reuse," by Danny Kopren, Sam Wellskopf and Lennon TeRonde from the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

This "smart clock" concept features an alarm clock made almost entirely of old cell phone parts, clocks and plastic from recycled e-waste, and a web interface that tracks a user's wake-up times using software on a reused Internet router.

The user can set a time for the clock to sound every morning. The website would also have information about e-waste and how the consumer could play a role in solving the e-waste problem.