An Environmental Problem
Electronic waste is quickly amounting to a global problem due to its toxic materials. The average cellphone has a lifespan of about two years, and the rate of electronic proliferation is not slowing down. With many electronics containing non-biodegradable materials such as gallium arsenide, the environment becomes more and more endangered as electronic waste piles up. Fortunately, a breakthrough from researchers at the University of Wisconsin may present a solution. Derived from wood, their new computer chip is made mostly from nanocellulose and is biodegradable.
Conventional chips of today use large amounts of semiconductors such as silicon as a backbone to their electronic components. Led by Zhenqiang Ma, the researchers strived to find an alternative material, eventually turning to cellulose nanofibril, or nanocellulose. Made by breaking down wood fibers to the nanoscale, nanocellulose has been recently popularized as a support material for devices such as solar cells, but had not seemed promising for use in radio frequency circuits. However, the team states that their wood-based computer chips perform just as well as normal chips. The chips are also biodegradable, able to be broken down by a common fungus.
A Step in the Right Direction
The electronic components of today’s chips make up very little compared to the huge amount of semiconducting material used, resulting in expensive waste as well as dangerous pollution when it is discarded. Ma’s new chip effectively reduces the semiconductor material used by a factor of up to 5000. According to Ma, his chips are ready for commercialization, but he suspects that there will not be much interest to switch chip design until there is more environmental pressure to do so or a spike in the prices of conventional semiconductor materials. Ma stresses the environmental impact of his invention, pointing to all of the electronic and potentially dangerous waste being thrown out. “What’s happening to all those waste streams?” asks Ma. “I think that’s a pretty legitimate question to ask.”