April 21, 2022
The very parts that make electronics quick and straightforward to make use of additionally make their disposal an environmental nightmare. Parts of smartphones, computer systems and even kitchen home equipment comprise heavy metals and different compounds which can be poisonous to us and dangerous to ecosystems.
As electronics change into cheaper to purchase, e-waste has piled up. A 2019 report from the World Financial Discussion board known as e-waste “the fastest-growing waste stream on the earth” — and for good motive. That very same yr, folks generated greater than 50 million metric tons of e-waste, according to the U.N.’s International E-waste Monitor. A lot of it’s incinerated, piled up in landfills or exported to lower-income nations the place it creates public well being and environmental hazards.
Three researchers within the College of Washington School of Engineering are exploring methods to make electronics extra Earth-friendly. Vikram Iyer, an assistant professor within the Paul G. Allen College of Pc Science & Engineering and researcher within the UW Institute for Nano-engineered Techniques, might be presenting a functional computer mouse with a biodegradable case and circuit board on the CHI 2022 convention in Could. Aniruddh Vashisth, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is creating synthetic materials that — unlike plastics — can be recycled and reused indefinitely. And Eleftheria Roumeli, an assistant professor of supplies science and engineering and researcher within the Molecular Engineering & Sciences Institute, makes use of organic supplies, reminiscent of seaweeds and different algae, to develop options to plastics that may be 3D-printed.
For Earth Day, UW Information reached out to those engineers to debate their tasks.
What options do you prioritize when designing sustainable electronics?
Vikram Iyer: There are many vital issues to deal with in designing sustainable electronics, together with lowering the environmental impression of e-waste. Our teams are attempting to develop inventive options to this downside, reminiscent of utilizing new and extra environmentally pleasant supplies whereas constructing useful units that don’t compromise efficiency. For instance, the mouse we designed with a biodegradable circuit board works while you plug it into any laptop.
What was the design course of like for the mouse?
VI: This challenge was a collaboration with Bichlien Nguyen, a principal researcher at Microsoft, and Vicente Arroyos, a UW doctoral pupil within the Allen College. We took a number of steps to make this mouse:
- We optimized our circuit design to make use of the fewest variety of silicon chips attainable, as a result of round 80% of carbon emissions related to manufacturing electronics comes from the energy-intensive processes used to make chips.
- We use biodegradable supplies when attainable. For instance, the circuit board that holds and connects the chips collectively usually incorporates poisonous flame-retardants, however we as a substitute sample our circuits on a board made out of flax fibers. Additionally, the casing for the mouse is made out of biodegradable plastics.
- We use general-purpose, programmable chips, like microcontrollers, in our designs in order that we will reuse them in new units.
- We use software program to estimate the environmental impression of every stage of manufacturing to quantify the environmental impacts and establish which levels of our design to enhance subsequent.
That is only a begin, and our long-term imaginative and prescient is to develop new supplies and strategies that assist us generate a manufacturing cycle for electronics wherein all of the supplies and parts can both be recycled and reused, or degraded and regenerated via the pure organic cycle.
Is it actually true that the mouse’s case and circuit board dissolve in water?
VI: After we submerge our circuit board in water, the fibers begin to come aside and the entire thing simply disintegrates. This takes about 5 to 10 minutes in scorching water, or a couple of hours at room temperature. After this we’re left with the chips and circuit traces which we will filter out. We additionally designed two totally different circumstances, one among these can dissolve in water and the opposite might be commercially composted.
Would a biodegradable mouse be as sturdy as a traditional mouse, particularly up towards the physique warmth and moisture we produce?
VI: There are undoubtedly sustainable strategies to make sure biodegradable parts are additionally sturdy. For instance, you can add a skinny coating of water-repellent supplies to the mouse — like chitosan, which is discovered naturally within the outer skeleton of shellfish. We additionally present that we will print the case out of polylactic acid, a cloth generally used to make issues like commercially compostable forks. Going ahead we’re actually excited to associate with researchers like Eleftheria, whose group is making new sustainable supplies. And by partnering intently with researchers at Microsoft, we hope to develop options which can be scalable and deployable for business.
What varieties of new supplies is the Roumeli group engaged on?
Eleftheria Roumeli: Our group focuses on growing supplies derived from organic matter. Along with seaweeds and different types of algae, this contains plant residues and microbial merchandise. Our research intention to additional our understanding of how these pure, versatile supplies can be utilized as composite constructing blocks for sustainable options to plastics.
How do you manufacture sustainable parts — like biodegradable components — for electronics?
ER: The good factor is that immediately’s manufacturing strategies can be utilized to create sustainable parts for electronics. For instance, a few of the biologically derived supplies my group works with might be made into inks and filaments for manufacturing components utilizing 3D printing. We lately revealed a paper describing inks we developed from spirulina cells — that’s a kind of blue-green algae — each with and with out cellulose fibers as a filler. Cellulose is essentially the most ample pure polymer, and these inks are 100% compostable in soil. There’s no particular composting facility required!
What are different different filaments you need to use for 3D printing?
ER: We will additionally make hybrid supplies which can be a mix of each organic matter — reminiscent of spirulina cells — and business, degradable polymers. For the polymer, we use matrix supplies reminiscent of polylactic acid, which Vikram talked about earlier than and is essentially the most extensively out there industrially compostable polymer, or polybutylene adipate co-terephthalate, a soil-compostable polymer. The actual alternative of parts determines the properties, efficiency and the compostability of our filaments.
For instance, for packaging, which we normally purchase and “devour” very quick after which discard instantly, a cloth made solely of organic parts could be preferable. Then, after we use it, it may very well be disposed of in a yard or landfill and it will degrade in a couple of weeks.
But when we wish a filament for the most common type of 3D printer, we would want a polymer binder to make sure that the filament meets the necessities of hot-extrusion based mostly printing.
Are there some other new improvements for sustainable electronics?
Aniruddh Vashisth: One factor we’re engaged on is recyclable artificial polymers. In contrast to what Eleftheria’s crew research, these polymers should not derived from organic parts. As a substitute, these polymers encompass an adaptive community and might be recycled and reprocessed a number of occasions.
In contrast to different plastics, these supplies don’t lose their thermo-mechanical properties throughout reprocessing and recycling. That is thrilling since you may reuse the identical materials time and again! This phenomenon of retaining materials properties is feasible as a result of the constructing blocks that make up these supplies can detach and reattach, similar to Legos.
So once we are recycling, we’re disassembling and reassembling the Legos. We have now been specializing in aerospace-grade composites, however we’re beginning to discover different functions with a variety of goal functions.
What impression would which have on the e-waste downside?
AV: Right this moment’s e-waste is normally a fancy composite, with plastics, steel and ceramic parts all in the identical machine. Recycling these supplies is a difficult job, in order that they usually simply find yourself in landfills and result in air pollution.
Proper now there are greater than 250 million computer systems and seven billion telephones on the earth. Most of those have polymer parts. Simply assume if the polymers utilized in these units may very well be recycled a number of occasions. That will be an ideal step towards sustainability! Our group has been engaged on the right way to design and characterize such recycled polymer composites for a extra sustainable future.
Tag(s): Aniruddh Vashisth • School of Engineering • Division of Supplies Science & Engineering • Division of Mechanical Engineering • Eleftheria Roumeli • Paul G. Allen College of Pc Science & Engineering • Q&A • sustainability • Vikram Iyer