Biodegradable microchips could help reduce electronic waste

A new research project is setting out to find a solution to the growing problem of electronic waste by creating the world’s first controlled degradable integrated circuits.

Researchers from the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering have won a 1.5m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for the project.

Their work could help address the growing problem of toxic waste created during the manufacture and disposal of common electronic items like computers, mobile phones and fitness trackers.

In 2019 alone, consumers threw away more than 53 million tonnes of electronic waste, much of which contain hazardous waste in components like batteries and circuit boards. It is estimated that less than 20% of this is properly recycled and the scale of the problem is growing each year.

The Glasgow team will work with a range of industrial and governmental partners to develop high-performance electronic materials which can be safely disposed of at the end of their useful lives. This includes designing electronics that are more easily recycled into new forms or by using components that naturally degrade altogether to form benign by-products.

The project, known as Green Energy-Optimised Printed Transient Integrated Circuits, or GEOPIC, builds on existing expertise at the University’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group.

Researchers from the BEST group have already developed numerous new forms of electronics, including bendable and stretchable printed circuits which offer performance similar to that of conventional silicon-based electronics, and wearable systems which can be powered by devices based on human sweat. They have also developed methods to reliably print high-performance circuitry onto flexible surfaces.

Over the next three years, the research project will build on that expertise to create silicon nanomembrane-based high-performance flexible and printed integrated circuits on new forms of biodegradable materials. Once the circuits are no longer needed, the silicon can be recycled and the materials will degrade naturally.

Professor Ravinder Dahiya, of the James Watt School of Engineering, is the principal investigator of GEOPIC. Professor Dahiya said: "There is an urgent need for action to tackle the problem of electronic waste, without losing the cross-cutting transformative power of electronics. Currently, electronic production processes can produce a significant amount of chemical waste. The devices which are produced by those processes can contain components which are, at best, only partially recyclable.

"By setting out to develop new types of electronics which make their eventual disposal an integral part of their production right from the start, we hope that we can find a way to help stem the flood of electronic waste and find commercial applications for the electronics we develop once this initial research phase comes to a close."

Dr Jeff Kettle, the co-investigator of the project said, "I’m proud to be working on this project with my colleagues in the BEST group and our partners across the UK. I’m confident that we can find new methods of dealing with this urgent problem. We are delighted by the support of a wide range of project partners allowing us to work with material specialists, electronics manufacturer, environmental scientists, and policy makers, who will provide input as the project progresses."

The GEOPIC partners are ARM Ltd, IQE (Europe) Ltd, the National Physical Laboratory, PragmatIC Printing Ltd, Printed Electronics ltd, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and Zero Waste Scotland.


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