Something New Grows on Trees: Biodegradable Chips for Electronics
It was just a couple of weeks ago when we featured nanocellulose, a natural supermaterial derived from plants that is getting ready for the spotlight. Researchers are looking at it for durable, transparent composites because of its strength. Others are investigating its use in applications from biocompatible implants and flexible displays and solar panels to better bioplastics, cosmetics and concrete.
Now we hear from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory that scientists have demonstrated a new product for the nanoscopic fibers of cellulose, a carbohydrate that gives structure to plant cell walls. Turning the material into a film, they’ve been able to produce high-performance computer chips made almost entirely of wood.
By replacing the semiconducting foundation of modern chips with biodegradable nanocellulose, electronics could become significantly less of an environmental burden when they are discarded.
Our world is now awash in data—as you read this, computers and sensors in your pocket, your home, the automobile outside and the power plant down the street are all generating reams of information.
Analysts say we’re just at the beginning of our ubiquitous-computing society. Our not-too-distant future will see an explosion of data production, from connected jet engines that create and share data about how they’re performing to wearable technologies that monitor your vital signs to tell you how well your body is performing.
Sensors and processors have already started to mediate a majority of elements that comprise the human experience from birth to death. Meanwhile, the infrastructure undergirding civilization is slowly becoming embedded with electronics while we navigate our social and working life with data-generating laptops, smartphones, apps and entertainment systems.
“Today, we have a humongous amount of data coming from video, text, graphics,” said Stanford University electrical engineer H.-S. Philip Wong during a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. “These are being processed in data centers but also on our bodies in electronics that have different requirements from traditional computers. And soon we’re going to have even more data needing processing from a trillion sensors that will be produced every day.”
Wong says this demand for a range of processors that can fit all the places where people will want to put them means we need to start thinking beyond silicon.