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Sustainable Electronics Materials: The Future of Electronics Design

Key Takeaways

  • Due to resource limitations, the practices of the electronics industry are unsustainable.

  • There may be future conductive materials even better than gold.

  • There is a lot of active research into new sustainable electronics options.

In my youth, I loved to build paper airplanes. But, as time progressed, I became dissatisfied with building just any run-of-the-mill paper airplane. Instead, I wanted to build something that looked realistic. My dad disagreed, saying that paper simply wouldn’t mold the way that I wanted. I kept trying, though, until my fingers and mind had fashioned the semblance of a World War II fighter plane. Miles of tape held the paper shape together. 

Let’s talk about how this same inventiveness and ingenuity is seeking to revolutionize the way we will build electronic circuits in the future. 

Sustainable Electronics Materials 

A small plant growing out of a computer keyboard

The future will contain biologically-driven electronics design

New sustainable technologies can reshape the electronics industry just as that attempt to build a realistic paper airplane reshaped my perspective. Without the impact of sustainability, the electronics industry faces challenges. Certainly, the consumer/industrial/military/aerospace demand for electronic devices will not go away. However, the materials used to construct those devices have dwindled and may eventually disappear.

I could have built the same airplane from a plastic kit as I had done many times before. The idea that I could make a model from paper for practically nothing, and the challenge given by my dad, pushed me to do something different. In the same way, the quest for sustainability in electronics--and to do something different--has taken us back to paper.

Sustainability revolves around using raw materials that have a basis in renewable resources. The importance of sustainability rests within acting as stewards for the environment and not polluting water supplies while mining precious metals or filling landfills with toxic materials. Producing sensors from paper and nanocellulose stands as a good example of sustainability. Rather than use PET films in electronic devices, or FR4 in PCBs, the design and production processes could specify the use of renewable, biodegradable, fiber-based nanocellulose as a viable alternative.

Scientists have taken cellulose a step further through 3D printing. Early research has shown that 3D printed cellulose wireless sensors can transmit data to the Internet of Things (IoT). Embossing unique cellulose shapes with improved conductive inks may lead to the production of new flexible and biodegradable devices. Paper wins.

While the concept of nanocellulose substrates and insulators seems intriguing, scientists have already fabricated chitosan proton conductors onto paper substrates. The significance of this development rests within the convergence of two materials that originate in nature. Chitosan proton conductors, derived from a structural polymer that makes up crustacean exoskeletons, has semiconductor properties. 

Modern Solutions to Modern Problems: e-Biologics

10,000 years from now, a future archaeologist will stumble across an ancient landfill and unearth the plastic case for an electronic device. Then, a team of researchers will marvel at how a seemingly advanced civilization could use such products. This story could have a much different conclusion because of the introduction of bioplastics. Smart packaging may include bioplastic circuits that include sensors to track temperatures and provide diagnostics before breaking down into its raw form.

Bioplastics offer one solution, yet other electronic biologic materials exist. The next circuit board may consist of e-biologics produced through the action of microbes. Designing circuits with microbial components or producing devices that consist of e-biologics take the electronics industry away from traditional practices that rely on harsh chemicals. The production of e-biologics does not require large amounts of energy or any toxic materials.

Research has indicated that e-biologics may offer improvements in performance and design flexibility. Indeed, metallics and semi-metallics produced through microbial processes offer conductive, capacitive, photoluminescence, and photoactive properties. Teams have already shown that they can use microbial methods to produce semiconductor materials. Along with improved performance, e-biologic production can occur on a large scale for a minimal cost.

Scientists in sterile suits viewing objects under microscopes

Electronics innovations are coming from biology labs

Proteins Worth Their Weight in Gold?

The gold standard for electrical conductivity has always been--well--gold. However, the use of gold, and other precious metals, presents an interesting ethical dilemma. In some instances, conflict-ridden regimes finance wars through mining gold. In addition, the mining practices used to unearth gold risk lives and fill drinking supplies with toxic tailings.

Research into sustainable electronics may unseat gold as a primary conductive material. Protein nanowires produced by bacteria offer the conductivity needed for memory devices, organic LEDs, solar cells, and biosensors. Scientists have built electrically conductive nanofilaments by introducing amino acids called cysteines into the proteins. The cysteine causes a reaction that makes the normally non-conductive protein become conductive.

Another application for proteins places electronics on hard gelatin. The use of gelatin may allow patients to ingest biomedical applications.

Living Electronics as a Future Design Medium

Science fiction stories often offer the premise of living spaceships outthinking, outmaneuvering, and outlasting human-flown spacecraft. In many instances, science has begun to catch up to science fiction with research into organic electronic components. Research into polymers has produced semiconducting polymers that have p-type and n-type properties. As development continues into high-performance semiconducting polymers, the devices may work in solar cells and in applications that require the conduction of ionic and electronic currents.

The concept of living electronics becomes even more realistic through research into using DNA obtained from fishing industry byproducts to produce photonics and organic electronics. Because the DNA features optical transparency, it serves as a fundamental part of organic LEDs and photonic arrays. In addition to using DNA for optical applications, scientists have also used commercially-extracted DNA as the gate dielectric for organic field-effect transistors.

Sustainability is Now

Any questions about sustainable electronic materials should start with “when” instead of “how.”  The current format that is in place now is on the verge of a substantial shift into the landscape of sustainable, renewable electronics. 

While a design tool certainly can’t make ethical design decisions for you, 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