Greening the electronics supply chain

Greening the electronics supply chain

August 1, 2019
Karl Håkansson

Bio-based materials can become a natural part within the field of electronics to meet tomorrow’s needs and challenges. Karl Håkansson from RI:SE shares his view on the potential of bio-based electronics

Electronics are all around us, helping us out with washing our dishes and finding out facts at any time wherever we are, but also distracting us with noises, vibrations and beeping when someone posts another picture of their amazing plate of food on social media. No matter if we think that the screens, sensors and the internet will help humanity – or be our doom – electronic devices are here to stay. Currently, self-driving cars and virtual reality (VR) are hot discussion topics, both demanding even more electronics. However, at the same time, a need for a sustainable future, turning climate change around and stopping over-consumption are some of the western world’s most pressing concerns. Are these two mega-trends compatible or maybe contradictory?

I spend a lot of my time at work trying to address this question. More specifically, I lead and carry out research with the aim to understand where bio-based materials have the potential to outperform non-bio-based materials within the field of electronics. At RISE, we call this ‘Bio-based Electronics’.

To clarify what Bio-based Electronics could entail, just think of a bio-based material used as a carrier of active materials, or alternatively the bio-based material itself can become an active material. This does of course not exclude the combination of the two.

Let me give you two examples. Firstly, what about the dream of printed electronics on paper substrates, which is attractive due to the huge 2D surfaces, low-cost raw material and environmental benefits compared with plastics. The problem is that the rough surface of paper makes it very difficult to print thin, well-defined layers on it – a necessity for efficient electronics. One slightly different approach, made possible with today’s nanotechnology, is to functionalize and decorate a single pulp fiber, utilizing the even greater surface area inside the paper itself. This concept is not restricted to pulp and paper but is also very attractive in combination with nanocellulose. In the future, this can enable the functionalization of wallpaper, packaging, textiles or even exotic applications. Why not space robots?

The second example relates to the predicted increase in demand for energy storage. This prediction is not only based on the growing market of electric cars but also based on the cheap – but intermittent – renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. Since it is unlikely that users of electricity in the future will have the patience to wait until the wind blows or the clouds vanish before starting to cook or to watch TV, that renewable energy needs to be stored. If batteries become the preferred way of storage, cheap and renewable conductive materials will be required. Electrically conductive carbon has the potential to be a big part of future energy storage solutions and can actually be produced from the carbon-rich lignin – a side stream from the pulping process. Conductive carbon fibers, melt spun or electro-spun can, for example, be used as the electrode in batteries and supercapacitors, applications that we are evaluating our materials in together with several universities and companies.

At the same time, the environmental impact of the mixtures of materials is always in the back of my mind. Our purpose is not to fool anyone by suggesting that adding a bit of bio-based material to whatever will make a product environmentally friendly. Therefore, it is extremely important to understand if the materials can be biodegraded, recycled, separated or re-used.

To summarize, I am exploring how bio-based materials can become a natural part within the field of electronics. But what I really would like to know is: what would a sustainable future look like when electronics are even more integrated into our lives?

Would you like to know more about Bio-based Electronics? Why not come to E-Waste World Conference & Expo 2019, taking place this 14-15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany.

E-Waste World Conference & Expo will take place from Thursday 14 November to Friday 15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

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