Researchers Race to (Literally) Dissolve the Issue of E-Waste

August 09, 2021 by Adrian Gibbons

New studies pose the question, "What if we could combat e-waste by dissolving obsolete electronic parts?" Meanwhile, the right-to-repair movement grows.

With 50 million tons of e-waste produced yearly, the race is on to find a solution to the growing mound of electronic waste. Recycling is one solution, and the other option is reusing aging electronics, especially cell phones. 


Smartphones use a host of rare elements, which can be recycled

Smartphones use a host of rare elements, which can be recycled. Image used courtesy of Fairphone


Unfortunately, it is usually cheaper for manufacturers to use raw materials instead of recycling electronic waste. As a result, many recycling sites reject e-waste simply because it is uneconomical. 

But now, new material sciences research from NC State and the American Chemical Society might change the game when it comes to reusing and recycling electronics. Beyond the research, there is the rising right-to-repair movement that could alter the consumer market significantly. 


Dissolvable Substrates Yield Reusable Materials

Researchers at NC State recently developed a process for retrieving highly conductive silver nanowires from a soluble substrate. The process is said to be a low-cost technique that can result in up to four reuse cycles of the functional materials. 


Reuse of advanced materials reduces both cost and waste

Reusing advanced materials reduces both cost and waste. Image used courtesy of NC State


While developing this technique, the researchers created a wearable health sensor constructed with silver nanowires and a polymer substrate. 

After testing, the sensor was dissolved. The nanowire structure was then broken down using ultrasound. Finally, to ensure that the material maintained its performance specifications, it was built into a new sensor from the composite materials.


ACS Researchers Build Dissolvable Smart Watch

Keeping on with the notion of dissolvable electronics, a new study published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces discusses a PCB prototype said to be dissolvable in water in under 40 hours. The PCB interconnects were built using a two-metal composite based on silver nanowire and zinc, which were printed onto a poly(vinyl alcohol) polymer and finally water sintered together. 


Recycling a water-soluble smartwatch results in less e-waste

Recycling a water-soluble smartwatch results in less e-waste. Image used courtesy of ACS


The fully functional smartwatch was housed in a polymer case, also dissolvable, which housed several non-dissolvable microelectronics, including passive components, LEDs, a microcontroller, and an OLED screen.  

Although similar in approach to NC State, the American Chemical Society study demonstrates an avenue for pushing dissolvable components to commercialization. 


Reducing Waste Through the Right-to-Repair Movement

For a long time, repairing household electronics has been viewed as an impractical activity. The rise of surface-mount technology made repair difficult. Further, the philosophy of planned obsolescence pushes consumers in a replace-over-repair mentality. 

Even so, many governments and individuals alike are pushing for the “right to repair.” A new report reveals that a repair-based service industry could generate up to half a million jobs in the United Kingdom alone. While this movement has been ongoing for years, it has recently gained more traction as European countries embrace a circular economy—or the concept of keeping materials in constant use.  

Repairable technology in the consumer economy only exists in limited applications, and corporations might take a financial hit were it to be developed extensively.


Will Designers' Roles Change With E-Waste Management?

At face value, the results of this new research do not appear to affect the role of an electronics designer. ECAD software operates in the abstract and does not care if the interconnects are copper or silver nanowires. However, at a deeper level, there are some aspects of the job that become more complex. For example, how does EMI shielding fit in with a water-soluble smartwatch?

The right to repair, on the other hand, has the potential to significantly alter the design of electronics. Modular parts designed for service replacement of connectors, batteries, cameras, and a host of other electronic elements could become common. Replacing the batteries and USB connections on an aging cell phone, for instance, could significantly curb the e-waste yearly rate. 



Are engineers a stakeholder in the life cycle maintenance of obsolescent technology, or does the onus fall on the consumer and corporations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

1 Comment
  • G
    GiantCracker August 13, 2021

    There needs to be legislation in place to mandate consumer products to be ‘open source’, unless the companies facilitate free returns for proper recycling measures if they want to keep their products ‘trade secrets’.  This would stimulate innovation and new growth in recycling technologies by people with the most money (large corporations).

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