Today’s smartphones, tablets and other portable computer devices are manufactured from non-renewable and non-biodegradable materials. Some of them are even potentially toxic to life and the environment. They are regularly discarded and end up filling up landfills where they pose a serious environmental threat. It is estimated that most American’s discard their cell phone every two years and replace it with a newer model. Each year over 1 billion new cell phones are produced to meet the demand of the public for the latest high-tech phone. The same holds true for tablets, which are always being purchased and discarded for the newest, fastest, fanciest tablet.
It is estimated that approximately 41 million metric tons of e-waste are disposed worldwide according to Causes International. They further go on to state that the United States and China are the biggest producers of e-waste in the world. Landfills around the world are quickly filling up with the potentially hazardous devices and countries are scrambling to figure out cost effective, safe ways to dispose of the dangerous, potentially toxic waste.
In May 2015, the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced that they had created a biodegradable computer chip from wood. The wood material used in the manufacture of the biodegradable computer chip is known as cellulose nanofibril and is the same substance used in the manufacture of common paper products. Once the chip was manufactured of almost 99.9 percent wood, it was further coated in an epoxy substance to protect the wood from moisture and keep it from expanding or contracting when exposed to the elements. Its appearance is that of thin plastic.
Besides being almost entirely biodegradable, the new wood-based computer chips will ultimately make pricey items such as cell phones and tablets more affordable for the general public if the cost of manufacture and waste disposal can be controlled and significantly reduced.
Manufacture and Environmental Dangers
Unlike chips manufactured using gallium arsenide, computer chips made from wood pose no danger to humans and animals during manufacture or when left in the environment to break down. Gallium arsenide the main component in the current manufacture of chips, is a known carcinogen in both animal and human studies. In factories around the world, workers are in danger of exposure to the harmful substance during the manufacture of the chips. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)states that respirators should always be worn when working around gallium arsenide to protect workers, but in many parts of the world the safety protocols are ignored and rarely followed. Such safety precautions are unnecessary when constructing chips from wood.
Unlike chips made from the arsenic containing compound gallium arsenide, computer chips manufactured from wood are small, thin and highly flexible. Chips constructed using gallium arsenide tend to be a bit larger and extremely rigid. The chips made from wood are also relatively transparent.
The future does look favorable for biodegradable computer chips but the problem that remains is production. Currently mass production of traditional semiconductor chips is cheap and quick. The cost of producing the wood chips on such a scale is relatively higher and will need to be explored more in depth. Although wood is abundant and it is believed that the abundant wood used to manufacture the chips will end up being cheaper than the high cost of mining the material used in the construction of gallium arsenide based chips, according to the report by Smithsonian Magazine.
Photo Credits: Carissa Rogers