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The 5-Year Quest to Unglue the MacBook Pro’s Battery

Years of chemical engineering has resulted in a solution that dissolves Apple's adhesive—and empowers DIY fixers.

by Jason Koebler
Jul 12 2017, 7:33pm

Image: iFixit

Last year, I visited an electronics recycling center, where I watched a man disassembling what cosmetically looked like pristine MacBook Pro computers—most of them newer than the computer I was using at the time. The recycler was using a crowbar to separate the battery from the rest of the computer, bending the case in the process. The computers—and their beautiful Retina displays—were headed for the shredder, so why bother being gentle?

I'm not sure what was wrong with the MacBooks. But there's a very good chance the batteries on many of them had gone bad. Lithium-ion batteries quickly lose their charging capacity after a few years, and any MacBook Pro with a Retina display has a battery that's glued into the case, making home replacement nearly impossible. It's also why the recycler was using a crowbar: Literally bending the case has thus far been the safest way to take the battery out of the computer without damaging the battery itself, which can explode if it's punctured (this is why batteries can't be run through recycling shredders).

"It's really strong stuff," Brett Hartt, lead tool designer at iFixit, told me of the adhesive Apple uses to secure the MacBook Pro's battery. "It's the same kind of stuff used to hold up skyscraper cladding or to hold up an ambulance's walls."

You don't want to heat up the battery too much because it's essentially a bomb

If you're not able to take the battery out, and the battery has a finite lifespan, then a computer that'd otherwise be good for many years suddenly becomes unrepairable and disposable. Throwing away a perfectly good computer is bad for the environment, bad for you economically, and just overall kind of a waste, and so the repair community has been working for five years to find a reasonable way of liberating the MacBook Pro's battery from its adhesive strips without completely destroying the computer. iFixit says it has finally found a reasonable method for DIYers to remove and replace their batteries: A chemical solution that dissolves the adhesive.

"It really hasn't been a commonly done repair," Hartt said. "It's a specialty repair."

For years, people tried heating the glue: "The problem is the adhesive is between the battery and a big aluminum block. You don't want to heat up the battery too much because it's essentially a bomb," Hartt said. "You can heat it from the other side, but you run the risk of melting the trackpad or the keyboard."

This breakthrough could be an important weapon for DIY fixers for years to come

Last week, iFixit announced that it has finally found a solution to "fix Apple's unfixable MacBook Pro": chemical solvents that melt the glue, are relatively nontoxic to humans, and also don't damage the computer's internal components.

"We tried seven or eight chemicals we thought would work, stuff like nail polish remover, but a lot of them weren't dissolving-y enough, others had odors that are quite offensive," Hartt said. The solution the company settled on is a blend of several different chemicals, including the nail polish remover acetone, that took more than two years to develop (for the first few years, the company was trying heat alone).

"We spent a lot of time trying to solve this at the beginning and kind of resigned ourselves to the fate that this wasn't going to be easy," he said. The resulting chemical, eloquently called the iFixit "Adhesive Remover," is administered using a syringe, and comes with gloves and eye protection; Hartt says the solution is just a mild skin and eye irritant and that the repair itself is relatively easy. I haven't tried it yet.

As someone who has done a handful of DIY repairs, it's worth noting that Apple hasn't made its batteries any easier to remove in recent years. Most of its batteries are glued in or attached with adhesives, and other manufacturers are following suit in an attempt to make their products thinner. This breakthrough, then, could be an important weapon for DIY fixers for years to come: "Apple isn't going to move away from this," Hartt said. "If electronics manufacturers continue to use adhesive, the repair community has to adapt. This is a great step into getting people comfortable with using chemicals in the repair process. It's kind of scary, but it's not too bad."

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