Developments in 3D Printing Help to Advance Green Electronics

In Switzerland, researchers and members of the Simon Fraser University research team have developed a very eco-friendly 3D printing solution that produces wireless Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that can be used and disposed of without contaminating the environment. Their strategy is to use a wood-derived cellulose material that replaces plastics and other polymeric materials that are currently used in electronics.

3D printing provides flexibility and adaptability to add or embed different functions into the 3D shapes or even textiles. This creates greater functionality and improves the overall utility of the finished part.

Creating Eco-Friendly Electronic Components

An eco-friendly, 3D-printed cellulose sensor is able to wirelessly transmit data and then be disposed of without any concern for environmental contamination. It's a very sustainable solution for what used to be a non-sustainable material that would not break down in the landfill.

Life Cycle Stages of Electronics

Source: EPA.gov

Printed circuit boards and other electronic components are known to be a source of hazardous contamination and harmful to the environment. As a result, this development is being viewed as a way to help advance a much-needed sustainable facet to electronics: green electronics.

Environmental sustainability for the electronics industry has been a long-standing challenge. According to the EPA, improving the life cycle management of electronics can be done by doing the following:

  • Reducing the number of materials used
  • Increasing reuse
  • Refurbishing
  • Extending the life of products
  • Recycling electronics

“This will ultimately reduce the total quantity of waste that needs to be managed domestically and globally,'' the EPA explains. The EPA also advises, as a best practice, to use a hierarchy of materials that range from most environmentally preferred to the least. They emphasize reducing, reusing, and recycling as a key element in sustainable materials management.

With a wood cellulose material (if they're able to successfully use it) the composite material properties are much better to use in an environmental ecosystem because it’s biodegradable compared to other metals normally used in electronic components.

At present, printed circuit boards and other electronic materials require the recycling of metal components, and are a pain point for those concerned about environmental impact. With a wood cellulose material, the amount of metal requiring recycling or recovery would be reduced and much easier to recover.

Improved Embossing

Researchers are also working on a parallel project involving the embossing of printed circuit boards. Namely, it allows them to freely print fine circuit patterns on very flexible polymer substrates, with more integrity and improved outcomes. This is a necessary component of electronic product design and development since electronic printed circuits are now becoming denser and more printed on substrates that require more flexibility.

The researchers are using an embossing technology for mass imprinting of very precise patterns. What’s unique about the imprinting is its low unit cost. It can only, however, imprint circuit patterns that are imprinted beforehand on the pattern stamp. The entire costly stamp must be changed to put in different patterns.

The research team was successful in developing a very precise location control system able to imprint patterns directly. This resulted in a new process technology that is expected to have wide-scale implications for use in the electronics industry, particularly for semiconductor processes now imprinting on flexible materials such as wearable devices and other finished products used in displays.

Looking Ahead for Green Electronics

These developments are emblematic of the advancements in additive manufacturing and its technology to greatly improve products in both indirect and direct ways for the electronics industry. Some of the changes will be incremental and small, however, they will lead to much bigger advancements in environmental awareness and compliance, and also in the ease of fabricating products by 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

In addition, advancements using 3D printing are proving their worth in creating parts that serve high-demand and complex products (such as wearable technology and display technology) that are increasingly printed on fabric and flexible materials.

As 3D printing advances, so do other industries advance, made possible by improvements in design, development, and sustainability.