Did You Know Computer Chips Can Now Be Made Out of Wood?

A cellulose nanofibril computer chip rests on a leaf. (Image: Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory)
A cellulose nanofibril computer chip rests on a leaf. (Image: Yei Hwan Jung, Wisconsin Nano Engineering Device Laboratory)

We all know that most electronic devices like PCs, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, and even calculators are mainly made from materials that are toxic and don’t easily decompose naturally.

Did you know that in 2014 there was more than 3.2 million tons of electronic waste thrown out in the United States alone?

To help with this growing problem, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been working with researchers from the Madison-based U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) to develop a solution. What they have come up with may surprise you. In a paper that was published in Nature Communications, researchers announced that they have developed a semiconductor chip made almost entirely of wood.

Professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma from University of Wisconsin said, in a statement: “The majority of material in a chip is support. We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else. Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”

The development of sustainable nanomaterials has been ongoing since 2009 by Zhiyong Cai, the project leader for an engineering composite science research group at FPL.

“If you take a big tree and cut it down to the individual fiber, the most common product is paper. The dimension of the fiber is in the micron stage,” Cai said in a statement. “But what if we could break it down further to the nano scale? At that scale, you can make this material, very strong and transparent CNF paper.”

Manufacturing cellulose nanofibrils:

CNF is thin, flexible, and when a layer of epoxy is applied, it doesn’t expand or attract moisture like wood normally does (think of a warped board—not something you want in a computer). The researchers were able to use CNF as a substrate or base layer for electronic circuits in lab tests, and they hope that their invention will be an eco-friendly solution to a growing electronic waste problem, wrote Popular Science.

“You don’t want it to expand or shrink too much. Wood is a natural hygroscopic material, and could attract moisture from the air and expand,” Cai says. “With an epoxy coating on the surface of the CNF, we solved both the surface smoothness and the moisture barrier.”

While the biodegradability of these materials will have a positive impact on the environment, Ma says the flexibility of the technology can lead to widespread adoption of these electronic chips.

“Mass-producing current semiconductor chips is so cheap, and it may take time for the industry to adapt to our design,” he says.

But flexible electronics are the future, and we think we’re going to be well ahead of the curve.

Hopefully, more industries start heading toward being more environmentally friendly when it comes to the waste that is caused once their product is discarded by the consumer.

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