Biodegradable semiconductors could help us curb our e-waste problem

biodegradable electronics
© Bao lab / Stanford University

A study from the UN recently found that 50 million tons of electronic waste, or e-waste, were thrown out in 2017, which is more than 20 percent higher than the amount thrown out in 2015. E-waste has been and continues to be a huge problem, especially as every little thing continues to be made over to include a battery, even greeting cards.

The most important change that can happen is smarter consumerism and a fix it instead of ditch it mentality when it comes to our electronics as well as always ensuring proper recycling when it's time to get rid of them. But having more earth-friendly electronics is also key.

Researchers at Stanford University think they are well on their way to that goal after developing thin, flexible semiconductors and other electronics that are also biodegradable.

Stanford engineer Zhenan Bao has been tinkering with skin-like electronics in her lab for years. Her team has aimed to create electronics that mimic the functions of human skin, namely being stretchable, self-healing and biodegradable. The lab has been able to create stretchable and self-healing electronics in the past and now its finally tackled the final one.

The team created a thin, polymer-based semiconductor that degrades when exposed to a weak acid like vinegar.

“This is the first example of a semiconductive polymer that can decompose,” said lead author Ting Lei, a postdoctoral fellow working with Bao.

The team also made a degradable electronic circuit and a biodegradable substrate material that all of the various electronics can be mounted on. All of these parts are flexible and can mold to smooth or rough surfaces, even an avocado. When their use is no longer needed, the weak acid degrades them into non-toxic components.

The substrate is made from a transparent cellulose and the electronic components are made from iron instead of gold, which is environmentally friendly and not toxic to humans.

These skin-like electronics will have a plethora of applications like skin patches that monitor glucose levels, blood pressure and other vital signs as well as wearable gadgets and environmental monitoring sensors that could be deployed across large areas, sending back data on forest health and then biodegrading when done. The devices could also be implanted in the body for temporary monitoring without having to be retrieved.

Bao's team hopes that biodegradability becomes a part of all electronics not just their skin-like devices.

“We currently have computers and cell phones and we generate millions and billions of cell phones, and it’s hard to decompose,” said Lei. “We hope we can develop some materials that can be decomposed so there is less waste.”

Biodegradable semiconductors could help us curb our e-waste problem
The thin, skin-like electronics may usher in a future of earth-friendly gadgets.

Related Content on Treehugger.com