Bringing Old Electronics Back to Life

ecoEDA plugs into KiCad to simplify the process of reusing parts from old electronics in new designs, which could reduce e-waste generation.

Nick Bild
9 months agoSustainability
ecoEDA simplifies component reuse (📷: J. Lu et al.)

The rapid increase in electronic waste (e-waste) generation has become a major global concern, driven by the rapid advancement of technology and the never-ending consumer demand for the latest gadgets. The widespread use of electronic devices, such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and other consumer electronics, has resulted in a significant increase in the number of discarded electronic products, exacerbating the already critical e-waste crisis. The rapid obsolescence of these devices, as well as the growing trend of planned obsolescence by manufacturers, further exacerbates the problem, contributing to the ever-growing mountains of electronic waste around the world.

The Global E-waste Statistics Partnership reported that 57.4 million metric tons of e-waste were generated worldwide in 2021, with only a fraction being recycled. This amount is expected to rise to 75 million metric tons by 2030. Additionally, the improper disposal and inadequate recycling of e-waste can lead to serious environmental and health hazards, including the contamination of soil and water resources with hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium.

A significant aspect that is often overlooked is that many of the components in discarded electronic devices are still fully functional. Many people, including long-time electronics hobbyists, tend to accumulate a large collection of broken electronic devices, while forgetting about the salvageable components inside. Even though there is a surplus of usable parts readily available, many hobbyists continue to purchase new components for their projects, either due to forgetfulness or a lack of awareness of the resources available in their collection of defunct devices.

Promoting the reuse of working parts from damaged electronics could help to ease the growing problem of e-waste. But simply raising awareness will not make it any easier to reuse existing parts in practice. So to take a more meaningful step towards alleviating this problem, Pedro Lopes’ lab at the University of Chicago designed an interactive electronics design tool that plugs into the popular KiCad design software to assist users in finding parts in their scrap pile. The tool, called ecoEDA, maintains an inventory of available parts, and when a new component is added to a circuit design, will suggest sources from which it can be harvested.

ecoEDA is built around a library that contains information about components. It contains the expected information like component type, value, and footprint. But it also contains some additional information like source devices from which the component could be harvested (e.g. an old phone, a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, etc.), as well as URLs to datasheets and a teardown guide.

When a new symbol is added to a schematic in KiCad, ecoEDA will leverage this library to provide suggestions for alternatives to using new parts. If an exact match for a part exists, the tool will trigger a pop-up notification inside KiCad that makes the user aware of alternative sources for it. ecoEDA is also aware of drop-in replacements, so it can also suggest alternate part numbers if they are known to be compatible functionally and in terms of their footprint and pinout. And since there is often a bit of flexibility available at design time, ecoEDA will also give the user the option to choose functionally identical parts with different footprints.

An especially interesting feature is ecoEDA’s ability to replace a single component with a subcircuit that performs the same function. For example, a level shifter chip could be replaced with some transistors and resistors. Not only can this feature eliminate some e-waste, but it could also be a lifesaver when a supply chain issue rears its ugly head.

A small user study was conducted to assess how well ecoEDA worked for real designers. They were given some old electronic devices to tear down, after which they added the component lists to the ecoEDA library. Next, they created a new design in KiCad. In the course of their work, it was found that, on average, 66% of the components in their designs were sourced from harvested parts.

As it stands, ecoEDA may struggle to gain a large user base due to the fact that devices must be torn down, and the components must be identified, tested, and added to the library. This takes a certain degree of skill, and also a considerable amount of time. In many cases, especially where components are inexpensive, users are likely to simply use a new part to save time. The researchers suggest that by using computer vision-based approaches, the process of identifying components and adding them to the library could be simplified in the future. Should some of these challenges be overcome, ecoEDA could make a big impact on e-waste volumes in the future.

Nick Bild
R&D, creativity, and building the next big thing you never knew you wanted are my specialties.
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