The semiconductor industry isn’t an especially ‘green’ business given all the nasty chemicals used in the fabrication process. But one of the industry’s biggest environmental challenges is electronics waste, given the meteoric rise in the use of electronics components in the last 20 years.
An estimated 50 million tons of electronics waste is produced each year from discarded mobile phones, computers, etc. and this figure could rise by as much as 500% over the next decade driven by growing electronics consumption in countries such as India.
Apparently only around 15-20% of this electronics waste is recycled, with the rest going directly into landfills and incinerators. Often finding its way to places like China, Malaysia, India, Kenya, and various African countries for processing.
So much so that the city of Guiyu in China has become something of an e-waste capital of the world. A huge electronic waste processing area employing over 150,000 e-waste workers that work through 16-hour days disassembling old computers and recapturing whatever metals and parts they can reuse or sell. The thousands of individual workshops employ labourers to snip cables, pry chips from circuit boards, grind plastic computer cases into particles, and dip circuit boards in acid baths to dissolve the lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals. Uncontrolled burning, disassembly, and disposal causes a variety of environmental problems in the regions such as groundwater contamination, atmospheric pollution, or even water pollution. And there are health risks too, including occupational safety and health effects for those people directly and indirectly involved, due to the methods of processing the waste.
Really not a nice place to have to live!
But the good news, courtesy of the IET’s Engineering & Technology pages, is that researchers at the University of Illinois claim to have developed electronic devices that can be dissolved in plain old H2O leaving behind only harmless products. The team from the University has demonstrated functioning building blocks for integrated circuits that could in future also be used to build degradable consumer gadgets that would help tackle the growing electronic waste problem. These devices are also being considered for clinical medicine to create various sensors and devices that dissolve inside the body after serving their purpose.
This is another one of those breakthroughs that define why I love working in electronics PR. Who knows maybe one day in the not too distant future I’ll be dissolving my iPhone 16 down the toilet when I’m due my next mobile phone upgrade.