In a paper published in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences, Stanford University materials science and engineering professor Zhenan Bao describes a new type of electronic device that she and her team are putting together for a new, environmentally-conscious generation of electronics users. This new type of device was inspired by human skin, being both a good electrical conductor and biodegradable at the same time. In addition to these important properties, the device displays other skin-like characteristics such as being stretchy and self-healing. The innovative aspect includes the electronic circuitry and the mounting elements, which are degradable even in weak acids like common vinegar. Once again, this proves that nature offers solutions to the most complex pollution issues of our modern society.
Another revolution in the making of electronics is professor Bao's usage of iron instead of gold or other rare (and more toxic) metals for certain electronic components, as well as the usage of cellulose as a substrate material allowing for these devices to be attached, for instance, to the skin of the user.
The even bigger challenge was building a type of material that would be sturdy enough for commercial use, conductive enough to carry an electronic signal, yet could easily break down in the environment when no longer in use. Tweaks in the chemical linkage allowed for the development of just such a material, so that the future looks brighter for the environment.
As a result of planned obsolescence practices, shorter novelty cycles, hype, new inventions etc, more and more items of electronics are being produced - and many more older ones are being discarded at an alarming rate. A study suggests a 20% increase of electronic waste year-on-year in the past years. Most electronics constitute serious hazards for humans and the environment. Recycling electronics is only practiced in less than 30% of the U.S. cases, and not altogether successful even when done right; certain components, like lead, cadmium etc., do not decompose and instead become severe contaminants. It is therefore salutary that science is getting closer to replacing heavily-polluting electronics with biodegradable ones.