Biodegradable Circuits, Electronics that Waste Away After Use
The ever-growing issue of electronic waste is nothing new to us, and it is frustrating that we seem to remain unable to directly do something to solve it. Sure, segregating e-waste and sending them to be properly recycled at certified facilities is an important step, but that does not remedy the fact that e-waste continues to piles up exponentially each year.
What are our alternative options then? Well, one idea that has been put forward is to mimic bio-plastics and create electronics that won’t pile up in the first place. Biodegradable circuits, or electronics that waste away after use may not be the next big tech craze, but they could potentially prove very useful in a wide variety of applications.
Biodegradable circuits or as they are more officially called by researchers “transient electronics”, are the basic feature of devices designed to completely disappear (biodegrade) after use. The rate at which these circuits biodegrade must be controlled, and should be made predictable, so that their designers can tell exactly when the circuits should be disposed of due to expiration.
One of the most recent studies in developing transient electronics was made by the researchers at the Tufts University, University of Illinois and Northwestern University. The center of the of the research focuses on circuits that combine silk, magnesium, and silicon. The design of their transient circuit uses silk protein as the casing, magnesium is used to lay out the gate and inter-layer dielectrics. Finally, very thin sheets of silicon are used on the circuit as the standard semiconductor.
The ultra-thin design of the circuits might suggest that it would be used with economical or structural advantage in mind, but its primary purpose is to actually accelerate the degradation of the material when it is finally disposed of. Instead of taking decades or even centuries to dissolve, the thin silicon sheets would only take a few days or weeks when dipped in bio fluids, while the silk proteins can be “melted” in water.
Of course, the dissolved elements and materials won’t serve their purpose if they remain toxic to the environment. Silicon, magnesium and especially silk can occur naturally in the environment, so there is less danger posed to living organisms which may accidentally come into contact with the dissolved materials. Even if we are to assume that there would be contact with these materials, the quantity of these ultra-thin circuits is usually so low that it would most likely not even be enough to cause a physiological disturbance.
Aside from having the potential to be completely harmless to the environment, transient electronics are also very important in the field of medicine, as it can be used to make implants that simply dissolve away after use. Usually, additional surgery is required whenever implants are no longer needed. With a circuit that can simply dissolve away, it may be safely discharged via your body’s natural systems. We still have a long way to go while developing this future technology, but eventually this may be so common we don’t even think twice about it.
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