By Michael Connolly, WIR Contibutor

ewaste

Fact: According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 2.4 million tons of e-waste were trashed in 2012.

Wooden computer chips now exist! Really. Wood!

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory, have successfully made computer chips of wood, eliminating the need for non-biodegradable plastic used to house processors.

The result is a drastic reduction of gallium arsenide (sounds bad, doesn’t it?) and other potentially toxic materials, so much so that the new wooden computer chips can be consumed by fungus said Computer Engineering Professor Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma and lead researcher on the project.

He called the wood computer chips “as safe as fertilizer.”

wood computer chip
Image via Nature Communications.

 

It took two and a half years of research and development to produce the first biodegradable computer chip. In an interview on television, Ma commented, “This material (wood) has surprising properties… that are really suitable for our purposes.”

One of those purposes is support. “The majority of material in a chip is support—we only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else.” The wood acts as biodegradable support layer for the computer chips eliminating the need for the toxic alternative.

To produce the chips, he explained, they chopped the wood into extremely thin slices of paper measuring on the nanoscale, or molecular level. With wood replacing the non-biodegradable plastic, the toxicity level of the microchip drops below the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standard, said Yei Hwan Jung who worked on the project.

Because the main product of the chip is wood, and given the size, the researchers say that the chips can be destroyed in nature by fungus unlike their plastic counterparts.

The wood computer chips, like all wood products, experience expansion based on the moisture content of the wood. However, this concern has already been addressed by the researchers. A biodegradable sealer has been developed to prevent the wood from absorbing moisture. The sealer also smooths the finished chips – a desirable characteristic, they said. Regardless of the amount of sealer used, Ma said, eventually fungus will eat its way through to the wood. A thicker coating of sealer can be used if they want to make the chips last longer.

Computer Engineering Professor, Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma. Image via the University of Wisconsin-Madison

The amount of wood needed to make a large environmental impact is not big. One piece of paper would be able to make hundreds of thousands of chips! One. Single. Sheet. What?! Wow!

Ma said there is already a start-up company that is interested in the technology. He and his team are working with the company to help produce the wooden computer chip and commercialize the technology.