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Purdue University program tackles sustainable technology

$3.2M grant helps to create greener cellphones, computers

Journal & Courier February 9, 2013

For Carol Handwerker, drastically changing the way the world produces technology is “totally doable.” After all, she’s done it before.

The Purdue University materials engineering professor worked for the National Institute of Standards in Technology, the organization that showed America’s manufacturers how to transition to lead-free electronics in the early 2000s.

Now she’s on a mission to change technology again. This time, to make our cellphones, computers, televisions and tablets better for the environment, economy and society as a whole.

Lucky for Handwerker and her team, the National Science Foundation has the same goal. That’s why the foundation awarded Purdue and Alabama’s Tuskegee University a $3.2 million grant to create a program that will educate the best and brightest students on sustainable technology.

For the next five years, the Global Traineeship in Sustainable Electronics program will work to solve a question manufacturers are asking around the world: How do you make electronics environmentally friendly without compromising their quality?

Handwerker spoke with the Journal & Courier about the project and how everyone can be more ecofriendly with their gadgets.

Question: Why do we need to worry about making technology sustainable?

Answer: Electronics are a global problem. There is a path from the cellphone in your hand all the way to the children who live next to polluting gold mines in Africa. The mass amount of cellphones, TVs and computers we manufacture cause irreparable damage to people and the environment.

Q: What do gold mines have to do with it?

A: There is actually a very small amount of gold in all of our cellphones. That gold, and the other metals in our electronics, can be reused and turned into more electronics if we recycle them. But often, we just throw them away or let them sit in our closets.

Q: Other than recycling our electronics, what can be done to fix this problem?

A: We need companies to make sustainable decisions early in the process of making technology.

Q: So how is Purdue getting involved?

A: With this Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant, we have created an environment of inquiry and action.

We have 20 professors who, over the next five years, will work with 28 students to do traineeships. They will learn how to make sustainable electronics and how those decisions will affect the whole supply chain, the legislative climate, everything.

Q: What kind of students are participating?

A: There are students from Purdue and from Tuskegee University who are studying materials and mechanical engineering, political science and management. We have brought them from so many disciplines because creating real change is going to take people from not just science, but those who can look at the political, social and economic parts.

Q: What is the goal of your work?

A: We want these students to be hired by companies who will use them to make our newest and best technology sustainable.

Q: What can people not in the program do to use technology more sustainably?

A: Recycle it. There are approved recyclers who will separate the parts of the electronics out to make sure they are used properly. Metal goes to metal, plastic goes to plastic. Don’t just let it sit in your closet.