Greener Chips?

Jun 9, 2015 5:00 PM ET

As the world embraces technology in every crevice, the concern that virtually all electronics are made from nonrenewable materials keeps me up at night. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about computer chips made from wood.

New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published on May 26 “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.” According to research team lead Professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, these chips are “so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it.” Traditional electronics not only do not biodegrade, they typically contain toxic materials that can prove harmful if improperly handled.

According to the research, the chips’ performance is similar to that of existing chips and their cost of manufacture is significantly cheaper. From an environmental perspective, eliminating the gallium arsenide – a toxic substance widely used in wireless devices – is a huge win. With the Internet of Things promising to connect 200 billion online objects by 2020, shifting manufacturing to renewables-based chips could mean better economics and significantly better environmental outcomes. As electronics continue to shrink in size and are widely deployed without a plan to reclaim them, a safer, biodegradable chip holds real promise.

Kudos to Professor Ma and his team. This news is truly music to my ears.

Carol Baroudi works for Arrow’s Value Recovery business, promoting sustainability awareness and action. Her particular focus is electronics at the IT asset disposition stage, e-waste, and everything connected.