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How Sustainable Electronics Materials are the Future of the PCB Industry

Electronics dumped in containers to be disposed


While the concept of recycling is not a new idea, applying it to electronic design may seem a bit odd. Many engineers, myself included, like to think of our products as being flawless, or never needing replacement, after the rigorous testing and production they go through. When first broached by the idea of sustainable electronics materials, I thought it went against my core belief as a designer. Even now, the idea still faces many uphill battles in regards to the discipline and adherence it requires. 

One of the most important things for anyone to understand about recycling is that finite resources are finite. The other thing one should realize about recycling is the fact that it is the cornerstone of sustainability. If we are to survive as a species, sustainable living is the only way that is possible.

The need for sustainability encompasses every aspect of our business and professional lives. This includes engineers and designers in the field of PCB design. The need to reduce our current impact on our environment is crucial to our manufacturing future. Especially when you consider the fact that waste materials for PCBs are a hazardous source of contamination to our environment.

What Does Sustainable Mean in Terms of Electronic Materials?

Firstly, sustainable means having the ability to remain viable through the use of techniques that afford continual reuse. It also means having the quality of not being harmful to the environment, depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.

However, the definition I prefer is, having the ability to meet the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. That, in my opinion, sums it up with the most powerful image and meaning. Also, when we apply this thought process to the field of electronic devices, materials, and components, it promotes a future of growth for the industry.

Let me clarify, as engineers in the field of electronics and design, you are fully aware of how encompassing electronic devices are in our daily lives. For example, there are 3.48 billion social media users as of 2019, with the total worldwide growing by 288 million (9 percent) since this time last year. Therefore, with access, comes the need for the internet and a device to access the account. This, of course, would not be possible without electronic devices. Finally, electronic devices require electronic materials to use in the manufacturing process, and this includes raw materials.

The Need for Sustainable Electronics Materials

Most people outside of the field of electronic design and manufacturing are unaware of the extent of the raw materials in use during the manufacturing process. These electronics (raw) materials include platinum, palladium, gold, copper, oil, and iron. Every one of these vital elements is in use in the manufacturing process of a host of high-tech electronic devices as well as the PCBs that provide functionality.

As I eluded to earlier, electronic devices encompass our personal and professional lives daily. Therefore, by extension, so do these electronic materials. However, even with their level of importance, most people do not realize how we obtain these elements. Well, they are raw materials found in nature, so the obvious is, they come for mines.

However, it is not as simple as mining because once the extraction takes place, they are transported and processed. Like with all mining operations, these activities require the expenditure of energy and other natural resources. They are thereby creating a chain reaction of large amounts of energy use, the production of greenhouse (gas emissions), a drain on our natural resources, and pollution. Therefore sustainability practices are required. If we reduce the need for these raw (electronic) materials, we can save natural resources, conserve energy, and reduce pollution.

The Current Methods for Sustainable Electronics Materials

The present model for sustainable electronic materials is dependent on the recycling process. Which on paper, this looks like a great idea. Especially considering that products like batteries and electronic devices contain a wide variety of valuable, scarce, and in some cases, potentially harmful materials.

However, the real issue is the methods of recycling electronic materials in use today are inefficient as well as costly. The only other means of reducing the need for source materials is better, more efficient designs and better manufacturing practices. As you can imagine, the effects are thus far, minimal. So, what can we do?

Well, all might not be lost. Because earlier this year, a group of researchers began working on an up-and-coming and possibly revolutionary method for obtaining sustainable electronics materials.

Composition of electronic hardware and circuits compiled together

It’d certainly be an interesting looking world if recycling old electronics meant building more structures from them.


The Three Pillars of Sustainability

Overall, the goal of sustainability is to create a system of guidelines, parameters, and operational frameworks that will allow you to function continuously without negatively impacting others. However, to achieve this, one must first understand and then focus their efforts on the three main pillars of sustainability.

The Three Pillars of Sustainability Are:

  1. The Environmental Pillar: The environmental aspect is usually the pillar that receives the most focus and rightfully so. It is the one pillar that has the potential for the most good or the most devastation in regards to now and the future.

    However, in terms of PCB manufacturers, the need to be cognitive of the hazardous contaminants associated with PCBs is paramount. This is a prime example of why sustainable electronics materials are crucial to the environment as well as the PCB industry. By in large, the overall focus of the environmental pillar is to limit the carbon footprint of a business.     

  2. The Social Pillar: In years past, the social pillar’s importance was not as widely accepted. However, with social media, the internet, and cameras every two feet, a business must put how they are perceived; front and center. Your PCB manufacturing firm may produce the best designs and PCB products, but if your supply chain uses child labor, for example, none of that matters.

    Furthermore, a sustainable business should also have the support and approval of its stakeholders, employees, and the community it operates in. The approach one uses may vary in how you maintain and secure this support, but the result remains the same. In summary, the social concerns of any business revolve around the ethical treatment of its employees and the local and global community.

  3. The Economic Pillar: The economic pillar is where a company or business affects its bottom line. In general, it is where the checks and balances framework is most needed. It is no secret that people invest in a company to make a profit. Therefore, the stakeholders of a company need to feel that their investments are yielding a certain level of returns.

    However, this is also where the economic pillar is needed most. A company should not place profits over the other two pillars of sustainability. Like any tripod, if one of these pillars fails, then the entire framework of sustainability fails.

Netted bins full of electronic trash, discarded computers and monitors

The size and volume of discarded electronics is staggering.


The Future of Sustainable Electronics Materials

Researchers are currently developing a 3-D printable solution that is also eco-friendly. At present, it is in use for the production of wireless Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors that you can use and then dispose of without any environmental impact.

The research group, led by professor Woo Soo Kim, is currently in the discovery phase of the development of this wood-derived cellulose material that can replace the plastics and polymeric materials presently used in electronics.

This is the type of developmental thinking that can revolutionize the electronics and the PCB manufacturing industry. Furthermore, it will help to facilitate the advancement of green electronics. With this technology, PCB manufacturers will be able to change the plastics in PCB to cellulose composite materials. This would, in turn, make the recycling of the metal components on the board easier to collect.

Sustainable electronics materials are not only feasible but warranted as well. The future of PCB design and advancement in the field of electronics depends on it. The current format that is in place now is on the verge of a substantial shift in the landscape of green electronics. Let us hope it happens sooner rather than later. 

While a design tool certainly won’t hold your hand in making ethical decisions, Cadence’s suite of design and analysis tools can ensure any adaptation or need is met with ease. Allegro PCB Designer offers an incredible array of layout solutions, adaptable DRCs, strong manufacturing outputs, as well as modeling and analysis options to get your designs out the door in exactly the way you intend them. 

If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts