The amount of electronic devices discarded and replaced every year is staggering. Companies release new models of smartphones, gaming systems, laptops and more at an urgent pace to keep making money, but that means consumers are tempted into giving up their not so old devices for the latest shiny model. That leads to a lot of e-waste being dumped into landfills, shipped overseas or even just taking up space in drawers and closets and all of those electronics contain toxic materials that are a hazard to human health and the environment.
It's unlikely that electronics manufacturers will stop pushing new models, but the materials that devices are made with could become more sustainable and that would make a huge impact. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a computer chip made from almost entirely of wood that is biodegradable, a big step in the right direction.
The scientists just published a paper in the journal Nature Communications about how it's possible to replace the support layer, or substrate, of a computer chip with a material called cellulose nanofibril (CNF) that is made from wood. The material makes the computer chip flexible and biodegradable.
"The majority of material in a chip is support. We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else," says UW-Madison electrical and computer engineering professor Zhenqiang "Jack" Mas. "Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer."
CNF is basically paper made from wood fibers at the nano-scale. In addition to being flexible -- the gold standard for electronics parts these days -- it is also very strong and transparent. These attributes have already made it a potential candidate for more sustainable solar cells. A thin coat of epoxy makes it resistant to moisture and as smooth as conventional chips.
Testing shows that the chips can perform just as well as their conventional counterparts, but with a much lower environmental impact. Not only are the chips biodegradable, but using wood cuts out the need for petroleum-based materials as well as gallium arsenide, a toxic material that is used in the chips of the majority of today's wireless devices.
Using sustainable materials also lowers the price tag for manufacturing these chips, which means electronics manufacturers may be more enticed to start using them. The researchers say that the wood-based chips could easily be mass-produced, the industry just needs to notice all of the benefits.