Here's how new Berkeley Lab biodegradable circuit could scrub recycled electronics, reduce e-waste

Take a look at what Berkeley researchers say might be a solution to reducing environmental damage from used electronics

ByMike Nicco and Tim Didion via KGO logo
Tuesday, September 6, 2022
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Berkeley Lab researchers have created a biodegradable printed circuit to scrub valuable components from recycled electronics and help reduce e-waste.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- They may have started out their lives sitting on your desk, but in the last year alone, old computers, monitors, and other electronic devices combined to create a staggering 57 million tons of e-waste.

According to the United Nations, only a fraction of that gets recycled here in the U.S.

Enter Berkeley Lab researcher Ting Xu, Ph.D., with a potential solution -- scrubbing valuable components from recycled electronics the way you might wash your dishes.

"Imagine if we turn that to be a water soluble process, right. So if we dissolve everything in the water bath, and heavy element, or whatever the targeted building block you're interested settle down to the bottom of it, then you can subsequently sort them out based on what you need," says Xu.

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Professor Xu and her team turned to 3D printing to create a fully recyclable and biodegradable printed circuit. The key is the material flowing out of the nozzle. Fellow researcher Junpyo Kwon, a student at UC Berkeley, says it combines elements that conduct electricity, with a biodegradable material and activating enzymes that react to heated water.

"And then we mixed the conductive particles such as like silver particles, and also the enzymes there. So the conductive particles makes the system conductive to be used as like an electronic devices, you know, to transfer the electrons very quickly. And the role of the enzyme is to eat or degrade the polymer chains," explains Kwon.

In other words, just add water. At the right temperature, the team says the sticky stuff in the ink separates from the expensive metals that conduct the electrical pulses - the core of circuits. After it's separated the metals can be recovered and recycled.

"I think it's could be very easy to apply for, you know, the recycling. So I think that our materials can, you know, hopefully, help to environments and you know, recycling," says Kwon.

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Professor Xu says a water based recycling system would not just be an environmental breakthrough, but also an advance in social justice. That's because in some parts of the world, used electronics are sometimes shipped to poorer countries.

"They burn it together the use of plastic as a fuel, to do mining, to get into really high temperature and to melt the metal and then start to get in there," Professor Xu said. "So during the process, you can imagine not only create a CO2, there's a lot of toxic gas, it get evolved in there. And oftentimes things like that happen at economically disadvantaged area, which we don't think it's fair."

The work is a joint project of Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, and is still in the early stages. But she says the team chose affordable, readily available materials, to make it easier for commercial companies to use them in their manufacturing processes. They hope that someday, the environmental damage from used electronics can be dissolved away as well.

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