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Innovation By Design

Apple's New R&D Project Doesn't Build Phones, It Rips Them Apart

As Apple grows, so does the problem of where its billions of devices end up. Now, the company is investing in potential solutions.

It's easy to forget the sheer amount of stuff Apple has put out into the world. There are one billion active —active!—Apple devices on the planet right now, or one for every seventh person on Earth. Now think about how many iPhones or MacBooks you've owned, total.

Yet there's still no perfect way to recycle iPhones or their respective innards. At a launch event for a few new products today, Apple’s head of environmental affairs, Lisa Jackson, gave a brief but significant nod to the problem by introducing a research and development project the company has been working on for three years. Named Liam, it is series of mechanisms—29 robot arms in all—that pick apart iPhone 6Ss and sort through each discrete component for re-use.

"There's no other machine in the world that can do what Liam can do," Jackson said, describing how the machine (or series of machines) unscrews, unplugs, and dissembles phones without damaging the internal pieces or rare earth metals.

Right now, when you turn in your phone to be recycled, it travels to a facility where it is shredded into raw material then roughly sorted, using magnets. "Grinding up Apple products is a growth business," wrote Bloomberg's Tim Culpan last month in a fascinating story that describing how Apple contracts with high-security factories overseas to grind up old devices for re-use.

It's not a perfect process, and there are a few reasons Apple would be interested in having better control over it. For one thing, grinding up and re-sorting iPhone waste is hugely cost- and energy-intensive. Some of the materials are also extraordinarily toxic, another reason why giving the job to a robot makes sense. Then there's the speed issue: where it might take a human an hour to fully take apart a phone, Liam takes one apart every 11 seconds, Apple told Mashable.

Then there's the other, simpler reason Apple chooses to grind—originally pointed out by Jackson herself in her interview with Bloomberg. "Apple shreds its devices to avoid having fake Apple products appearing on the secondary market, Jackson said," Culpan reports. In short, it sounds like grinding them up is easier than having to track the components and where they end up. After all, in the past, Apple has sued third party accessory makers for re-using recycled MagSafe adapters. So not only does Liam disassemble your old iPhone, it gives Apple greater control over how the parts end up being re-used—and the power to make sure they don't fall into unlicensed hands.

Take the tungsten inside your phone, Jackson said at the event today. Tungsten is a very, very hard rare metal—it's used in the iPhone's "alert module," helping to produce the buzz of a text message. Most of it is mined in Russia or China, and it's highly valuable, even as scrap. After Liam removes it from your phone, the metal could be made into a "precision cutting tool," Jackson said. Meanwhile, the silver found in a phone's motherboard could be re-used in a solar panel, she says. The ultimate goal? "To create breakthroughs that allow us to use those high-quality materials in our own products."

Right now, Liam seems to still be under development—but according to Mashable, Apple is finishing a second model for use in Europe, and envisions building many more. Pair that with the fact that Culpan says Apple's main recycling facility in Hong Kong is reportedly opening up a branch in San Francisco, and it starts to look a lot like Apple is getting more interested in how it can leverage the value of your phone long after you've moved on to the next model.

It's a smart move for a company that's looking to diversify what it can sell—and to whom. Liam isn't the end-all solution to Apple's recycling woes, but it shows that Apple is thinking far beyond the launch cycle of its next form factor.

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