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Giving Electronics a Second Life

Informal recycling in Lima, Peru. Non-workable computers, piled on the street, are disassembled and separated by a crew of people isolating resellable materials and parts. In a few hours, everything is gone. (Image credit: Ramzy Kahhat, Arizona State University.)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

As technology expands globally, Eric Williams seeks ways to increase its social benefits while reducing its impact on the environment. Williams is a professor at Arizona State University who explores industrial ecology and life-cycle assessment, especially as applied to analyzing information technology (IT) and energy systems. Through his IT work, Williams studies the life-cycle assessment of semiconductors and computers and the macro-analysis of relationships between energy consumption, telecommuting and e-commerce. Much of Williams' recent work addresses the challenge of global electronic waste, as end-of-life computers and electronics are exported from the U.S. and other developed countries to the developing world. On the positive side, many employment opportunities open in the developing world, giving equipment a second life in markets that improve access to technology for low-income people. On the negative side, valuable materials in electronics are often recovered using primitive recycling processes that cause significant environmental impacts. Williams is working on engineering and policy solutions to mitigate those recycling impacts while maintaining employment and access to used equipment. Read more about Williams work here and read his responses to the ScienceLives 10 Questions below.

Name:  Eric Williams Age: 44 Institution: Arizona State University Field of Study: Sustainable Engineering

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I studied physics in undergraduate and graduate school because of its aesthetics and wanting to understand how nature works. Later on in life I wanted to find socially relevant areas to which I could contribute. Industrial ecology and life-cycle assessment fit the bill perfectly: lots of important research not yet done and a physics background helps to do it.  

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Don't bother worrying about whether you're talented enough to do something. The will to make it work is far more a determining factor.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? As a kid I played with the usual suspects like chemistry sets and electric circuits. I don't remember exactly the first, but perhaps it was "corny elevators," the classic where you put popcorn in a glass of water with vinegar and baking soda and watch the corn go up and down as bubbles accumulate on the corn surface and pop.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? The ah-ha! moments. Often, a project will get complicated and it's not clear how to make sense of it. After thinking about it enough, sometimes a different way to look at the problem pops into one's head and things fall into place. It's a real rush.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? In my area of research I'd say it's asking the right question. Because it's a new field, important questions don't necessarily need complex methods and decades of work to arrive at something useful.

What are the societal benefits of your research? The idea is to use the models to find qualitatively different ways for policy-makers, industry and consumers to reduce environmental impacts and increase the social benefits of technology.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? I have to name two people. Earlier in my career, when I worked at United Nations University in Tokyo, Robert Ayres, a veteran in our field and also a former physicist, was formative in my approach to the field. More recently, my colleague at Arizona State University, Brad Allenby, as anyone who has met him will attest, has a very distinct worldview, one that is definitely influencing my research.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? In this field it's hard to throw a rock without it hitting a research question people haven't looked at yet. Whether one calls it industrial ecology, life-cycle assessment or net-energy analysis, the field is only a few decades old, so there's a lot of low-hanging fruit left.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? That's easy, my laptop. My whole life is on it. Everything else can burn. Well, except the pictures my kids drew that are up on the wall.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? I don't play music in the lab, and I ride the bus to work when not biking, but I'd have to say it's a toss-up between Philip Glass and Gorillaz.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.