Can we win the war on E-waste? Mountains of electronic waste are dumped every year, leaching all kinds of toxins into the environment. And mining for the elements used in electronics manufacture causes huge swathes of land to be destroyed. Researchers at Karlsruhe Institute for Technology are hoping to combat this scourge with Biodegradable Electronic Components. And if they are successful, we may be tossing our future hard drives into the compost bin when we upgrade.
The young researchers of the ‘Biolicht’ group have replaced toxic ingredients usually used to make electronics with easily biodegradable materials such as starch, cellulose, gelatin or chitin as insulators and semiconductors and dyes made of plant extracts. “These may not be as long-lived as the inorganic alternatives, but they easily survive the service life of disposable electronics,” says Dr. Gerardo Hernandez-Sosa, leader of the Biolicht Young Investigator Group of KIT. At the end of their life, new compostable electronics can simply be thrown into the compost bin or even into the garden where they will rot just like an apple core or cardboard coffee cup.
Previously, scientists successfully created biodegradable silk computer chips, used for some medical applications where the ability to breakdown and dissolve into the body after use is an advantage.
This research is not aimed at just specialist applications. Instead, the team at Karlsruhe want to change the way manufacturers make our everyday electronics. Their research will make it possible for a whole host of producers to stop using plastics and metals and switch to natural and biodegradable printing material and ink. ”Manufacturers of organic electronics can swap to environmentally compatible materials without having to exchange their printer arsenal,” explains Dr. Hernandez-Sosa. The team still have work to do to perfect the consistency of the inks, but Biolicht team scientists expect to have compostable organic electronics ready for the market in three years time.
We’ve already seen recyclable paper USB drives, and heard about the Wisconsin University team creating computer chips out of wood, but large scale uptake of these technologies will only come about through pressure from consumers on manufacturers or from tighter environmental protection laws. In the meantime, it’s important to check you’re using a reputable company to dispose of any electrical items.