Second Life

Upcycling an Old Laptop LCD

Daniel Bisegna

Issue 7, January 2018

Rescuing a laptop destined for landfill, Daniel gave this laptop’s screen a second chance.

We often hear about the problem of e-waste, and in many cities there are electronics recycling programs of some type or another, to try and reclaim some of the precious metals and reduce the volume of hardware ending up in landfill, simply because it’s not quite as useful as it once was, or an irreparable part has failed. However in most cases, electronics requires extensive processing in order to recycle the parts which are useful. Just like recycling glass bottles is a good idea, it still requires more energy than simply washing them and using them again. The same theory can sometimes be applied to electronics, in this case a laptop screen. We caught up with Daniel to chat about his upcycled LCD and to find out how it was done.

There are so many LCD screens in failed laptops that go to waste… but removing and using them in anything other than their original hardware, usually presents a challenge. How did you get started with this project?

I got my inspiration from watching videos by channel DIY Perks, on YouTube, where he shows how to reuse an old laptop monitor and turn it into a portable display. I had a laptop from our school, which was going to be sent to e-waste because it was broken and had stopped working; so I thought it would be perfect to do this project with.

That’s awesome! Any time that waste can be reduced is great, and especially if you can get a free screen out of it! Removing the LCD from the laptop isn’t always a simple job - were there any challenges doing so?

The hardest part about removing a display from a laptop is finding all the screws! There can be lots of them, and often in odd spots and hidden under seals and rubber feet. Some of the screws on the display were hidden under small rubber stops, which needed to be removed first. Then I had to carefully unclip and pry the plastic cover apart to reveal the screen inside.

Yes those screws can be devious and hide very well! It’s amazing how one tiny screw can hang on so tight! What control hardware, power supply, and other requirements are there to drive everything?

In order to find the right driver board, you need to find the panel's model number, which is located on the back of the screen itself. I got my controller board from eBay. They come from China and can range from $6-$40, depending on the type of display you have. You need to ensure you choose the correct selection because the seller needs to adjust the settings on the board to properly drive your display.

From boring and lifeless, this laptop screen was rewired to be a perfect fit for Daniel's desk!
From boring and lifeless, this laptop screen was rewired to be a perfect fit for Daniel's desk!

The board itself is made up of three components: the main driver board, buttons to control it and a power supply for the CFL tube lights inside the monitor - if your monitor used CFLs instead of LEDs. It has inputs for HDMI, DVI and VGA, as well as audio input and output jacks. It runs on 12V, and while the listing said 3A, it will easily run on 1A-2A.

Nice one! Once you got your screen out, and your control board arrived, did it all happen first go, or did it take some trial and error to make things work?

When the kit arrived, I plugged in the video cable, power inverter cable and gave the board some power and the monitor instantly lit up. I was actually quite surprised that it worked first go. The only problem was that the on-screen controls were all in Chinese. To change them to English, I used a translation app on my phone, which could translate text from a photo in order to search through the menus until I found the language setting.

That’s a great hack to find the language settings! Many of us have been stuck with hardware in another language at one time or another.

Monitors are rather cheap these days. While upcycling is very important to reduce waste, what was the cost of any hardware required?

The total cost of my build was $35, which is a mere fraction of the price of a brand new monitor. However, depending on the monitor, these driver boards can cost as little as $6 on eBay. The biggest advantage of reusing a laptop monitor for me, is that a normal computer monitor won’t fit under my desk, while the laptop monitor fits perfectly. The best part of this whole process is, if you are very careful when disassembling the laptop, it can be reassembled and used with an external monitor plugged in, or with remote desktop software. This means it could be turned into a media or server PC.

That’s a great point, it isn’t always “bigger is better”. Are there any limitations with this sort of upcycle that you wouldn’t have with a new monitor?

I believe the biggest limitation is the look. Right now, it looks like someone has ripped the top of a laptop and stuck it on my desk. While it is possible to make your enclosures out of wood or acrylic sheets, it was easiest for me to just put the display back in its original housing from the laptop and use the hinges from the laptop to keep it supported. Other than this, it is practically no different from a new monitor.

Hmmm... we feel some 3D printing coming on perhaps? What did you learn during this process that was unexpected?

I was delighted to discover that I could turn what was now an old and slow laptop that was fit for the bin, into a perfectly working second monitor for my desk. A second monitor has a great impact on workflow and helps me a lot, as I do a lot of video editing. I was surprised at how easy it all was. After the monitor had been removed, it was practically all plug and play, with the monitor simply working first go. If you have an old laptop, or find one in a council pickup, I would highly recommend giving this project a go as it is cheap, but extremely practical.

While broken screens surely exist, they’re certainly not the primary cause of people discarding computers. The screens from old laptops probably less hours on them than say, an office monitor. Of course, it would all depend on the source and usage of the screen. If you were to tackle this project again, what would you do differently?

Firstly I would have liked to have made my own enclosure from acrylic sheets, as the laptop display looks horrible. Secondly I would have liked to make proper enclosures for the display drivers. The CFL driver board outputs voltages in excess of 600V, and trust me when I say you should not touch it! It is not enough to do any actual damage, but it does hurt a lot if you do. As a result, I have taped sheets of paper over all the boards to prevent accidental touches, until I have access to a 3D printer after Christmas, when I will 3D print custom enclosures for the boards. I would also recommend putting a small heatsink on the main chip, as it also gets rather warm.

Looks right at home!
Looks right at home!
Daniel hopes to improve the look one day.
Daniel hopes to improve the look one day.

That sounds like a great solution. 3D printing for the win! Tell us what amazing project are you working on now?

I am currently working on my portable Bluetooth speaker, which was in Issue 1 of DIYODE Magazine. I am upgrading the internal batteries to the speaker as well as a voltage and amps display. These batteries are able to drive the speaker to a much higher volume, and are much better than using 9V batteries.

Awesome Daniel, thanks for taking us through your upcycled monitor. It’s a great project, and we’re sure it’ll inspire some more one-step upcycling!

E-waste (discarded electronics products and appliances) is a global issue. From domestic items such as hair dryers and TVs, to maker items like a cheap 3D printer that didn't quite work as you'd hoped. The problem is increasing at an alarming rate, with almost 45 million metric tonnes discarded in 2016.

Yes, you read that correctly - 45,000,000,000 kilograms (99 billion pounds for our friends still using the imperial system) across the globe.

In Australia, the Federal Government introduced the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) back in 2011. This programme, which is funded by the importers and manufacturers of equipment (over 5,000 units per year) with a levy, has helped divert and recycle 40,000 tonnes of e-waste, preventing it from being added to landfill. That's equivalent to the weight of around 218 Boeing 747s, each year. That's a lot!

The recycling process basically breaks everything up to recover materials. The precious metals in the batteries, the plastics, even the PCBs are processed to recover the gold, silver, and copper. This is just one of the schemes to reduce e-waste in Australia, with Mobile Muster covering used mobile phones, where up to 98% of the phone's can be recovered and returned to the manufacturing of new products. It's also funded by a small levy on phones, providing great corporate responsibility.

So next time your tech has passed its useful life, ensure you use an e-waste facility to help stop it going to landfill.

Daniel Bisegna

Daniel Bisegna

HSC Student and Casual Crew Trainer at MacDonald's