Are biodegradable electronics the answer to our e-waste problem?

Brid-Aine Parnell

Monday 19 October 2015

With a mountain of e-waste that’s being piled ever higher, Europe needs economically viable ways to recover electronic components and new ideas on how to repurpose old electronics.

According to a UN University report, almost three-quarters of e-waste goes straight in the bin. In 2014, 41.8 million tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide. A third of that came from the US and China with Europe contributing over a quarter of it. The rest of the world, including the Gulf region, is to blame for the remaining 18 million+ tonnes.

Each year, more than $10.8bn worth of gold within these electronic devices is being discarded. And yet, globally, less than 16 per cent of e-waste is being recycled or reused.

These staggering figures all point to an inescapable fact – it costs time, money and energy to recycle and reuse electronics and, at the moment, the numbers just don’t add up.

“One of the big problems is pulling electronics apart and getting the components out in an economically viable way,” explains Martin Goosey, director of MTG Research Ltd and former industrial director of the ten-year Innovative Electronics Manufacturing Research Centre (IeMRC) project at Loughborough University, in the UK. (This was converted into a doctoral research centre when funding finished last year.)

Goosey continues: “A lot of people are looking at ways of keeping electronics going for longer, but when these do reach the end of their life, they’re looking for ways to make them more easily recyclable, with components that you can take out and reuse.”

One possibility that’s been making headlines recently is biodegradable electronics. At the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, the ‘Biolicht’ BMBF Young Investigator Group is looking at printing electronic components from compostable natural materials. They’ve received a total of €1.7m ($1.9m) of funding, over four years, as they look into such things as semiconductors and dyes made of plant extracts or insulators made of gelatin.

The KIT group are not the first to come up with an idea like this, there’s research going on all over the globe into biodegradable electronics, assessing the value of natural polymers made from sources like rapeseed oil, cornstarch and fibres.

Three years ago, in the UK, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) partnered with In2Tec Ltd and Gwent Electronic Materials to develop a printed circuit board whose components could be easily separated by immersion in hot water. This allowed a huge 90 per cent of the original structure to be reused, compared to just two per cent of traditional printed circuit boards.

But despite all this research, there is, as yet, no viable commercial product that could be used in the majority of electronics. Dr Gerardo Hernandez-Sosa, leader of the Young Investigator Group at KIT, makes it clear that his group’s printed electronics are aimed at products with a short shelf life: “These may not be as long-lived as the inorganic alternatives, but they easily survive the service life of disposable electronics.”

For Martin Goosey, the problem is that organic materials just don’t have the same resilience as inorganics.

“We all want our electronics to be reliable, and if we drop them we don’t want them to break. Generally, things that are biodegradable often don’t have the properties that are required to give the end user performance that’s needed,” he explains.

So, while research into alternatives is important, it’s reusing and recycling that need to improve in the short to medium term to handle the issue of e-waste. Electronics manufacturers are already held to legislation that requires them to try to use more environmentally friendly processes to produce electronics that are more energy efficient and more easily recyclable. Equally, companies are supposed to be part of recognised recycling schemes to help their countries meet EU-mandated targets.

E-waste is a serious problem, but there are a number of factors driving the research into solving it. Aside from environmental concerns, there is the real possibility that some elements of electronics, like rare earth metals, could run out or become scarce enough to drive prices higher.

Biodegradable electronics research nabs the headlines, but there are lots more projects working on finding new ways to recover the components from e-waste. MTG Research is part of the CoLaBATS project, which is developing new battery recycling processes to recover cobalt, lanthanum, cerium, copper and nickel from Li-ion and NiMG batteries.

And there are reuse projects, such as one at Britain’s Sheffield University that took the power modules out of dumped desktop computers and repurposed them to take power from renewable energy sources. These small modules, hooked up to a solar panel for example, could then be used in countries without a constant supply of electricity to recharge a mobile or run household lights.

The EU’s directive on e-waste calls for 85 per cent of it to be collected for reuse or recycling by 2019 by each member state, an ambitious target that should help decrease existing e-waste mountains. But without further research into new ways of manufacturing, repurposing and recycling electronics, getting a serious grip on this problem could prove very difficult.