Electronic waste, or “E-waste,” has emerged as major pollution problem in the 21st century. This waste, from old TV to computers, leeches toxic chemicals and compounds into the land, water supplies, and when disposed of improperly, into the air.
Not only does this threaten the health of the environment and vital resources, but it also directly affects the health of those exposed to the pollution.
There seem to be two main drivers behind the build up e-waste: first, many consumer electronics are intended to be replaced quickly; and secondly, we find the relatively difficult task of repairing old electronics, often breaking due to circuits that crack from damage or heat. Influencing business is one thing, but researchers from the University of Illinois have an answer for the problem of cracked circuits: restorative electronics.
The paper, Autonomic Restoration of Electrical Conductivity, details how we may be able to work responsive systems into computers, fixing circuits before we even notice there is a problem.
To the team at the University of Illinois, this discovery means reducing waste, building more reliable, dependable electronics, and improving the safety for military and private endeavors. So, these self-healing electronics can meet our normal demands while reserving the ability to fix themselves, but how? The solution rests with reactionary, self-healing polymer materials.
As the thermomechanical failure of conductive pathways begin to show themselves, micro capsules – as small as 10 microns in diameter, placed on top of the functioning circuit – break open and release their metallic fluid, which restore the flow of electricity in the circuit. (See photo above, click to enlarge).
To chemistry professor Jeffrey Moore, a co-author of the paper Autonomic Restoration of Electrical Conductivity, “It simplifies the system. Rather than having to build in redundancies or to build in a sensory diagnostics system, this material is designed to take care of the problem itself.”
In addition to improving the existing system, placement of the capsules allows manufactures to focus on localized protection areas, with only specific capsules breaking open to restore specific break points. According to the paper, “This autonomic healing system shows the potential for more sustainable electronic devices with increased fault-tolerance, improved circuit reliability, and extended service life.”
Will this Reduce E-Waste?
On their face, restorative electronic systems seem to be a helpful solution for problems of e-waste. However, it’s critical to recognize that this will not end e-waste. For electronic waste to be seriously addressed, consumers need to understand the lifespan and destination of their waste. What’s more, consumers must understand their role in e-waste. Rather that ditching that monitor in the trash, consumers should be supplied with information from manufactures on where and how to dispose of electronics.
This brings us to the next problem: the main driver of e-waste is the acknowledged fact that most electronics are built and phased out quickly. The onward march of technological advancement, which shows no signs of letting up, is at the heart of e-waste. Manufactures must begin to build in biologically inspired system (like restorative electronics), and they must also pursue reclaiming of e-waste more vigorously. How we get at this may be on hold until a new market leader is established. Then, we can vote with our dollars.