Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have created the electronic components of a computer chip from nano-cellulose – basically, wood. They work like a regular chip, but without all the metals and plastic that pollute the environment. In fact, using nano-cellulose reduces the amount of semiconducting material by a factor of up to 5,000, all without losing any performance.
Microchips have escaped the realm of laptops and smartphones and are popping up in common appliances like TV’s, refrigerators, microwaves, watches and more. But when these things reach the end of their life, it leaves behind a vast amount of electronic waste. What if those computer chips were biodegradable and made from wood? Imagine the impact it could have for the environment.
Nanocellulose is a transparent material derived from wood that is an attractive alternative to plastic as the surface for flexible electronics. According to lead researcher Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, he and his colleagues have shown that they can use nanocellulose as a support layer for radio frequency circuits that work just as well in smartphones and tablets. And these chips can be broken down by a common fungus.
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Right now, the majority of semiconducting material is used to make the support layer for electronics, while the active components make up only a “very tiny fraction.” This waste is expensive and it can lead to dangerous pollution when it is thrown out. Nanocellulose has been used as a support material for solar cells and other electronic devices. But this is the first time they have been tried in high-performing radio frequency circuits, according to Ma.
While these types of chips are ready to be made for the commercial world, it is unlikely that it will happen, Ma said, without increased pressure from consumers or environmental regulation or an increase in rare semiconductor materials like gallium.
Images via Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory and Nature.