Americans improperly dispose of two to three million tons of electronics a year. Given the frequency with which we replace our laptops, tablets, and smartphones, it's imperative we find a way to cut down on the toxic waste.
Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has found an unlikely solution: biodegradable microchips made out of natural material. Replacing the silicon in the chips with a wood-derived material called nanocellulose paper could seriously cut down on the amount of harmful waste emitted upon disposal.
Normally, devices such as transistors are created on the surface of a rigid wafer made of a semiconducting material (like silicon). Ma and his team begin their own process this way, but then lift the work off the wafer with a rubber stamp, transporting it to the nanocellulose.
This solution will only replace the base, not the electronics, but it's a good start, as the bulk of most electronic devices is plastic, while the actual electronic components are comparatively very tiny.
Ma and his colleagues found that the new wood-like material works just as well as traditional semiconducting materials. The support layer can be used for radio frequency circuits and, when disposed of, will be easily broken down by a common fungus.
Ma told MIT Technology Review that this miraculous new base is ready for commercial use, but is not likely to be picked up. He believes that it would take a lot of environmental pressure or an increase in the price of materials such as gallium for the electronics industry to begin incorporating the new technology.