GEOPIC to develop biodegradable integrated circuits

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Biodegradable integrated circuits are being developed by a team at Glasgow University in GEOPIC, a project that aims to stem the growing problem of electronic waste. 

E-waste (Image by dokumol from Pixabay)

Researchers from the University’s James Watt School of Engineering have won a £1.5m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for the project.

Their work could help address the growing problem of toxic waste created during the manufacture and disposal of electronic items like computers, mobile phones and fitness trackers.

According to the University, 2019 saw consumers dispose of over 53 million tonnes of electronic waste, much of which contained hazardous waste in components like batteries and circuit boards. It is estimated that less than 20 per cent of this is properly recycled and the scale of the problem is growing annually.

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The Glasgow team will work with industrial and governmental partners to develop high-performance electronic materials which can be safely disposed of at the end of their useful lives. This includes designing electronics that are more easily recycled into new forms or by using components that naturally degrade altogether to form benign by-products.

The GEOPIC project - Green Energy-Optimised Printed Transient Integrated Circuits - builds on existing expertise at the University’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group.

BEST group researchers have already developed new forms of electronics, including bendable and stretchable printed circuits which offer performance similar to that of conventional silicon-based electronics, and wearable systems which can be powered by devices based on human sweat. They have also developed methods to print high-performance circuitry onto flexible surfaces.

The three-year project will build on that expertise to create silicon nanomembrane-based high-performance flexible and printed integrated circuits on new forms of biodegradable materials. Once the circuits are no longer needed, the silicon can be recycled and the materials will degrade naturally.

In a statement, Professor Ravinder Dahiya, principal investigator of GEOPIC, said: “There is an urgent need for action to tackle the problem of electronic waste, without losing the cross-cutting transformative power of electronics. Currently, electronic production processes can produce a significant amount of chemical waste. The devices which are produced by those processes can contain components which are, at best, only partially recyclable.

“By setting out to develop new types of electronics which make their eventual disposal an integral part of their production right from the start, we hope that we can find a way to help stem the flood of electronic waste and find commercial applications for the electronics we develop once this initial research phase comes to a close.”

GEOPIC partners include ARM Ltd, IQE (Europe), the National Physical Laboratory, PragmatIC Printing, Printed Electronics, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and Zero Waste Scotland.