An US research team has come up with a new revolutionary eco-friendly computer chip that could save the environment from the mounting pile of non-biodegradable electronic waste. The new semiconductor chip can be made out of wood and most of the materials used in its manufacturing are compostable.
As more competitive technological devices are invented each day, the older ones usually get discarded, and the huge amount of e-waste takes its toll on the environment. In 2014 alone, for instance, about 42 million tons of non-biodegradable electronic products were simply thrown away. In order to prevent the heap of electronic waste from growing even further, environmentalists suggested that new materials must be used to manufacture electronic components.
A project that brought together researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) could bring the solution to the problem. The team, led by engineering professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, argues that the support layer of most computer chips can be easily replaced with a new wood-derived biodegradable material.
“The majority of material in a chip is support. We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else,” Ma explained. “Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”
The eco-friendly computer chips use a material named as cellulose nanofibril (CNF), which besides being biodegradable has the advantage of being very flexible. Ma described it as a very strong, yet nearly transparent sheet of paper.
The researchers did not come up with this solution overnight, as they have been spending the past decade trying to find new alternatives to petroleum-based computer chips. Shaoqin “Sarah” Gong, one of Ma’s UW-Madison colleagues, has more than a decade of studies on bio-based polymers, while FPL’s Zhiyong Cai has been looking to develop a feasible way of manufacturing compostable semiconductor chips since 2009.
Their results were published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday. The study suggests the new eco-friendly microchips will be as competitive as their petroleum-based counterparts in terms of performance, but have the advantage of turning into compost shortly after being disposed of.
Wood is a natural hydroscopic material and could attract moisture from the air and expand,” Cai explained. Cai reassured everyone that the new products are not more susceptible to moisture than traditional chips, as some may believe. The problem can be solved by applying a simple epoxy coating on the surface of CNF, which makes it both smooth and moisture-resistant.
Nonetheless, large scale implementation of the new method could revolutionize the tech industry not only by producing biodegradable semiconductor chips, but also more flexible ones. However, the current products are very cheap to make, so it might take a while before manufacturers will be persuaded to adapt.
Image Source: MaximumPC