Are you a human? If so, you probably threw away at least one electronic device last year, piling onto nearly 42 million tonnes of e-waste in 2014. Luckily, we're a step closer to gadgets that could be more biodegradable: computer chips made almost entirely out of wood.
Here's the problem: Most phones, tablets and other portable gizmos are made out of stuff that isn't biodegradable and is toxic to the environment. Plus, gadgets go obsolete so quickly, prompting folks to rapidly chuck older versions. But using a wood-based material to build the bulk of a computer chip could lead to less harmful devices in the future.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison teamed up with the US Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory to fashion the new semiconductor chip. The paper was published today in Nature Communications.
See, most of a computer chip is composed of a "support" layer that cradles the actual chip. The research team replaced that support layer's non-biodegradable material with something called cellulose nanofibril (CNF), which is flexible, wood-based, biodegradable — all things that can make a device way less hazardous.
"Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it," says Professor Zhenqiang Ma, who led the team. "They become as safe as fertiliser."
A possible roadblock was the fact that wood can expand or shrink based on how much moisture it sucks in from the air. The fix? Glaze the CNF film with an epoxy coating, a substance that makes CNF more resistant to water. In addition to wicking away moisture, the coating also made the CNF smoother.
The result: a sustainable "green chip" that's cheaper and less toxic than the materials currently used in electronics. Every little bit helps when we're piling landfills with thrown out phones, especially when dangerous chemicals in existing computer chips, like gallium arsenide, can leak into the ground. Perhaps this new technology could lead to, say, entire phones being made out of wood-based materials, creating a landscape of responsible electronic devices.
But if you'd prefer to just melt your Macbook and use the liquefied laptop to sculpt a giant urn, that's cool too.
Picture: University of Wisconsin