The Biological Nutrient Cycle for Electronic Industry

Article By : Michael Kirschner

Do biological, organic, biodegradable and/or compostable technologies exist that can provide functionality useful for electrical/electronic applications?

My last couple columns focused on describing and giving examples of a circular product (or component/material) lifecycle in electronics. The August column described both technical and biological “nutrient metabolisms.” Today, just about all examples in the electronics industry are from the technical nutrient cycle side; so what about biological? Do biological, organic, biodegradable and/or compostable technologies exist that can provide functionality useful for electrical/electronic applications?

Dr. Clara Santato, a professor of engineering physics at Polytechnique Montréal is working on just that. Her bio describes one example:

In an initial breakthrough, her team succeeded in creating melanin in thin-film form that is homogeneous and reproducible (an important criterion in any scientific approach!). Their second major discovery: these thin films can store an electrical charge — which is a key characteristic of electrodes for use in supercapacitors.

Recently, they observed exclusive electronic transport in pellets of natural Sepia melanin processed in dry conditions.

The figure above shows the structure of the supercapacitor and the eumelanin-based material, derived from a cuttlefish ink sac, between the two metal plates.

This figure gives you an idea of the scale of the experimental material. Review the paper for more information.

“So what?” you ask?

Just because we have been doing things (successfully, I might add) in a particular way for the past century or more does not mean it is the best, most efficient, most cost-effective or most sustainable approach—. As I pointed out in my initial column, we have gotten to this point without — until recently — a fundamental consideration of impact on environment, human health or sustainability in every technical and business decision made in the product lifecycle. Our failure to incorporate these important design constraints resulted in the linear product lifecycle.

The present environmental crisis we face is a clarion call to a circular product lifecycle. This requires different approaches driven, of course, by technical requirements and, equally importantly, the additional constraints imposed by circularity. This paradigm shift opens the door for different materials and the opportunity to identify and demonstrate new technologies that, like this, may replace existing technologies while resulting in a more circular product lifecycle for the components and systems that incorporate them.

Think about every one of those material decisions made throughout the supply chain in the design and production of every aspect of your product. That gets to be a bit overwhelming. But consider that adding these sustainability- and circularity-related constraints to each decision may drive a need for innovation. And that innovation will drive new products, new technologies and new markets. And that’s what this industry is all about.

We as an industry certainly must be much more aggressive in our approaches, and I’ll address that in a future column. Right now you can start much closer to home: look at your own decisions and those of your teammates. Do you have an understanding of what the key circularity parameters are to consider in your decisions? Does your management give you the freedom and resources — or the mandate — to consider circularity in your product’s lifecycle?

Researchers like Santato are at the forefront of making the fundamental innovations necessary to circularize electronic technologies while developing and expanding future markets. She suggests that this technology, brought to fruition, could enable new applications for edible biomedical devices, biodegradable sensors and others. Keeping your finger on the pulse of research like this and supporting it will help make it happen.

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