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resource recovery

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Weighing the resource implications of modular products

Designer Dave Hakkens made a social media splash last fall with Phonebloks, his concept for a phone with swappable parts. Modular phones would allow users to upgrade, repair, and customize parts of their phones. The overall aim is to reduce electronic waste by getting people to hold onto their phones longer. To bring such an idea into a competitive market, Hakkens needed a sophisticated partner. That's where Google comes in. The company now plans to release its first modular phone, developed under the name Project Ara, in 2015.

phonebloks
phonebloks

At first glance, a modular phone seems like a great option for reducing material use. But in the span of the phone's expected 5-6 year lifespan, it's reasonable to think that advances might emerge in energy harvesting or manufacturing techniques that could render it relatively inefficient. So a question remains whether the phone base will be able to adapt to such changes. Moreover, if one of the goals of the project is to reduce electronic waste, a system will need to be in place to collect and recycle or repurpose modules that are no longer wanted. Given the modules' tiny size, it's possible that the resources they contain won't be perceived as valuable enough to prioritize or make a collection and recycling system viable.

Of course, modularity isn't simply about extending the life of a product. It's also another form of mass customization. People can pick or choose what components they want. In the case of Ara, Google is banking on people's willingness to pay not only for their own preferred mix of apps, but for a customized mix of hardware modules that do everything from take pictures to take your pulse.

Interface's FLOR carpet tile is perhaps the most well known modular product on the market, and is a big part of the company's overall sustainable business strategy. If there's a problem, users can replace tiles individually, rather than replacing an entire floor's worth of carpet. The end result is less waste and an extended life for the overall floor covering. The Guardian recently portrayed a handful of other modular products, from shoes to an indoor aquaponics system, as inherently sustainable. However, it's not clear that modularity is necessarily aligned with sustainability. Manufacturers and entrepreneurs working on modular products intended to be "sustainable" should consider their end goals relative to things like initial resource inputs, waste, lifecycle costs, and recoverability to ensure that modular is indeed doing better with less.

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Detecting & recovering nano-sized resources

While it's clear that nanotechnologies will play a large and essential role in the conversion to a sustainable, dMASS economy, they also pose potential risks.

Risks related to nanoparticles released into our environment are largely unknown. Nanoparticles could pose a threat to human health through water and food supplies as well as dispersal in the atmosphere. Large amounts could reduce the overall diversity or complexity of the biosphere. We do know that pharmaceuticalsplastics, and other substances are turning up in the food chains of humans and many other organisms, but the effects are just beginning to be studied, and the fate of nano-sized particles from emerging technologies is not yet understood.

From the standpoint of mining above grade, dispersed nanoparticles are difficult to detect and recover. This means that what begins as a valuable resource becomes waste. Gold, for example, has been used throughout history in quantities that could be recovered and reused repeatedly. Today it's being used in such tiny amounts in electronics that it's being "consumed" for the first time.

That's why I'm particularly interested in some of the new technologies that address detecting, separating, and recovering nano-sized resources.

A recent dMASS Resource Fix featured a molecular sorting technique that enables materials to be broken down into their constituent elements. Another profiled a new technology for detecting invisible amounts of gold and other metals that in the past would have been discarded.

Now another piece of the puzzle is emerging that could be an important safeguard. It's a sensor system made of "sticky electrodes" that can detect free nano-particles and help mitigate impacts on biological systems.

Innovations in resource detection may help manage risks associated with nanotechnology, as well as enhance resource recovery abilities.

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Resource Fix: X-ray vision finds invisible resources

Hundreds of millions of dollars of gold is dug up but then discarded each year because it's not detected in ore. Researchers at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Resource Association have developed a new method to find tiny amounts of gold in ore. Their gamma-activation analysis (GAA), similar to hospital x-rays, is faster and more accurate than the chemical analysis that's currently used in the mining industry. Current methods also require heating ore to 1200 degrees C and involve the use of lead. Researchers plan to adapt the GAA process for silver, lead, zinc, tin, copper, and the platinum group metals.

Better detection of metals means better resource recovery and less waste. It will be interesting to see how the same technology also might be applied to finding tiny amounts of valuable materials in discarded tech and other products.

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