SCIENTISTS ARE CREATING BIODEGRADABLE COMPUTER CHIPS

 In Environmental sustainability

Reduce, reuse, recycle. A mantra that we’ve been hearing since we were wee little younglings. Environmentally friendly solutions are the new designer handbags, but more useful. Keeping with the trend to reduce waste and make production of electronic devices more sustainable, researchers have developed a semiconductor chip made almost entirely out of wood.

With consumer electronics usually made from oil-based plastics and other potentially harmful chemicals, the team hopes that by creating these chips they can alleviate some of the waste problems associated with non-biodegradable materials. The paper published in Nature Communications explains that the support layer found in all computer chips can be replaced by cellulose nanofibril (CNF), a biodegradable material made from trees.

Zhenqiang Ma, one of the authors of the paper, explained that:

The majority of material in a chip is support. We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else. Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”

The researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been researching sustainable nanomaterial for over five years. When they finally reached at wood, they had to break it down and assess its durability and flexibility in nanoscale parts. After breaking it down to even smaller units than the fibers used in paper production, they were able to produce strong, flexible, and transparent cellulose nanofibril paper. Using wood in electronics, however, is not easy. Getting the material smooth enough and stopping it from expanding are vital to the success of the design, as wood is a hydroscopic material and can expand by absorbing moisture from the air.

Zhiyong Cai, lead author of the study, explained:

“With an epoxy coating on the surface of the CNF, we solved both the surface smoothness and the moisture barrier.”

In other words, covering the material in a thin layer of glue allowed them to get around the problem of moisture absorption and expansion. While the biodegradability of these materials will have a positive impact on the environment, the researchers hope that the flexibility of the technology can lead to widespread adoption.

With new wireless technologies being continuously introduced into the marketplace each year, this new research is extremely valuable in keeping up with our consumer habits. There are currently more mobile devices in the world than there are people and the number just keeps on increasing. This number doesn’t include the amount of devices that are consistently being poured into our landfills each year. As the average person upgrades their cellphone every 18 months, it’s likely that there are about 130 million devices being discarded per year in the US alone. This number also doesn’t include devices such as tablets, laptops, desktop computers, and standalone music devices such as iPods.

While more than 70 percent of these devices can be reused, only 14 to 17 percent of them are actually recycled annually. The environmental costs are continuing to mount. This new research, if adopted by the electronics industry, can make great strides in creating more sustainable products by reducing the reliance on the toxic material gallium arsenide that is currently used in many products.

POSTED BY: bigthink.com / Monica Joshi

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