Portable electronics — typically made of non-renewable, non-biodegradable and potentially toxic materials — are discarded at an alarming rate in consumers’ pursuit of the next best electronic gadget.
In an effort to alleviate the environmental burden of electronic devices, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers has collaborated with researchers in the Madison-based U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) to develop a surprising solution: a semiconductor chip made almost entirely of wood.
The research team, led by UW-Madison electrical and computer engineering professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, described the new device in a paper published today (May 26, 2015) by the journal Nature Communications. The paper demonstrates the feasibility of replacing the substrate, or support layer, of a computer chip, with cellulose nanofibril (CNF), a flexible, biodegradable material made from wood.
“The majority of material in a chip is support. We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else,” Ma says. “Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”
Zhiyong Cai, project leader for an engineering composite science research group at FPL, has been developing sustainable nanomaterials since 2009.
“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 says. “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.”
“Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”
Working with Shaoqin “Sarah” Gong, a UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering, Cai’s group addressed two key barriers to using wood-derived materials in an electronics setting: surface smoothness and thermal expansion.
“You don’t want it to expand or shrink too much. Wood is a natural hydroscopic 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.”
Gong and her students also have been studying bio-based polymers for more than a decade. CNF offers many benefits over current chip substrates, she says.
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