måndag 5 november 2007

Laptop computer failures - blame the EU?

I got a three year old IBM Thinkpad computer for a friend and it packed up after a few months. It is not entirely dead, but the fault is with the display, which sometimes works and sometimes does not. Apparently it is a widespread problem both with Thinkpads and Apple Mac laptops. The Graphics Processor Unit, a surface-mounted chip, becomes detached from the motherboard due to a combination of failure of the soldered joints and flexing of the motherboard.

It turns out that the root cause of the problem is the use of lead-free solder, as required by the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which came into force in 2003.

The lead/tin alloys used in traditional solder have peculiar properties which is why they have long been used for making joints in electrical, electronic and plumbing work. The physical chemistry of this is explained here

Lead is of course extremely toxic and there are problems associated with both the extraction and manufacture of lead and lead products, and with their disposal at the end of their useful life. But if the alternatives result in a short-lived product, that is not environmentally friendly either.

It looks as if the legislation has been promoted by politicians and civil servants who do not know what they talking about as they do not understand the science.

The way round the problem is not to ban lead but to ensure effective re-use and end of lifecycle recovery. One of the issues affecting the life of computers is the production of new software which makes ever more stringent demands on the hardware, which, assuming it is of sound manufacture, is discarded only part of the way through its useful life, which is typically about twelve years. This has been the root cause of the mountain of electronic scrap. For the individual, this is good news as serviceable computers are available at no cost. If they are fitted with a new hard disc and the Linux operating system and software are installed, they will do everything that most people use their computers for. But it has been bad news for the environment.

In this light, surely what is needed are directives on software efficiency and the recycling of electronic scrap?

The absurdity of it is that the amount of lead used in electronic equipment is tiny compared with the amount used in car batteries and buildings, for which there is no effective substitute.

Should you have a dead laptop which has stopped working due to failure of the soldering under the GPU, you may be able to resuscitate it. There is a lot of discussion of the matter on the internet. It can be temporarily cured by putting something under the chip to force it back into contact. A risky but effective procedure is to re-flow the solder, which will effect a long term cure.

Hopefully the manufacturers might come up with a solution, but it is not a simple matter and they should have been given the opportunity to do this before the legislation came into effect. As it is, thousands of consumers have been saddled with computers that have to be thrown away after a short life.

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