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Biodegradable Computer Chip: E-Waste No More?

Sherrell Dorsey headshotWords by Sherrell Dorsey
Leadership & Transparency
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Slimmer, faster and better-designed electronics are the default expectation of our generation. As our devices get smarter, our predisposition as a society to swell landfills with harmful wastes -- in the form of old computers, laptops and phones -- breeds inept environmental destruction that remains irreversible. Luckily, there are some very smart people who are seeking to find better solutions to curb the problem.

Recently, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Laboratory, released a study on the development of a wood-derived semi-conductor chip. According to the study, the biodegradable chip is made of from a translucent, cellulose-containing material (resembling plastic) called nanofibrillated cellulose.

"If you take a big tree and cut it down to the individual fiber, the most common product is paper. The dimension of the fiber is in the micron stage," study co-author Zhiyong Cai details."But what if we could break it down further to the nano scale? At that scale you can make this material, very strong and transparent CNF paper."

By using bio-based materials (traditional chips are made from unsustainable petroleum-polymers), reliance on environmentally toxic chips could wane. The performance of the chips is also noted to be comparable to what exists in our electronics today.

Certainly, the market for lifecycle innovation in how our electronics are produced and disposed is ripe. Imagine if the smartphones we purchase on average every 18 months contained environmentally friendly materials or contributed to the world economy by reuse of the silver, lead and gold components lost in the landfill?

Presently, top e-waste producing countries have exported these products to less-developed and regulated countries. In the U.S., it is not illegal, unlike the European Union, to ship out these harmful products to less developed areas like China and Vietnam.

China, also referred to by a 2013 United Nations study as “the e-waste basket of the world," is managing its own host of e-waste issues marked by legal loop holes that have yet to slow the importing of waste.

Consumer voices on this issue have pressured brands to step up to the plate to encourage more responsible practices. Top electronics-producing brands such as Apple, HP and Samsung have come under fire for both their popularity in the market and the growing impact of irresponsible consumer recycling. Each year, 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are disposed worldwide — only 12.5 percent of which is recycled.

Since heightened awareness of the issue has sprung up amongst consumers and brands alike, e-waste recycling programs have become integral in a brand’s corporate responsibility plan.

Sony’s online search engine allows consumers to recycle their products for free through a nearby recycling center. Office supply retail chain Staples partnered with Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) in 2012 to help businesses recycle old technology by ordering recycling boxes online and shipping back to Staples.

Apple’s reuse and recycle program allows consumers to turn in eligible devices for immediate credit toward the purchase of a new device.

These programs help to solve short-term challenges by incentivizing responsible behavior and removing the dreaded and often expensive haul to recycling centers. But they are only one part of the equation.

If wood-derived, inexpensive microchips are our first step in widely adopting environmentally friendly electronic materials, we could be on the road to removing the burden of e-waste.

"Mass-producing current semiconductor chips is so cheap, and it may take time for the industry to adapt to our design," says Yei Hwan Jung, co-author of the study and graduate electrical and computer-engineering student. "But flexible electronics are the future, and we think we're going to be well ahead of the curve."

Image credit: University of Wisconsin 

Sherrell Dorsey headshotSherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

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