Environment: these scientists created environmentally friendly printed circuits

In the list of environmental disasters, e-waste pollution is quite high on the risk scale; conveniently installed alongside plastic pollution or global warming. This has reached an alarming level: more than 62 million tons per year, an increase of 82% since 2010. The question of their sustainable management is becoming more and more critical.

In 2022, less than a quarter of them will be recycled. A big challenge partly linked to difficulty recycle printed circuit boards (PCBs) efficiently, which make up a very significant part of this waste stream. Faced with this observation, a team of scientists from the University of Washington offers an encouraging solution.

A completely new formula

Published in the journal Sustainability of nature, the team’s work clearly has potential. Traditional printed circuit boards are primarily made of fiberglass and hard plastic. During the recycling process, it is very difficult to separate plastic from glass. The answer of these researchers is to develop a new material to make them, called vPCBs, made from a durable polymer called vitrimer.

Vikram Iyer, co-author of the study, explains: “ PCBs represent a significant part of the mass and volume of e-waste (…) They are designed to be flame retardant and chemical resistant, making them very robust. But this also makes them virtually impossible to recycle. We have created a new material composition that has electrical properties comparable to conventional PCBs, as well as a process that allows them to be recycled over and over again. “.

Easy recycling

A recycling process developed by the team it is devilishly effective, see instead: allows you to recover 98% of the vitrimer, 100% of the glass fibers and even 91% of the solvent used. Aniruddh Vashisth, who also participated in the study, explains the key to this success: the use of an organic solvent with a low boiling point. This solvent has the peculiarity of swelling the plastic in the PCB without damaging the glass panes or electronic components. Circuits can thus be safely separated and restored. Smart!

At the molecular level, polymers are a bit like spaghetti, they roll up and compact » image of Vashisth. ” However, vitrimers are characterized by the fact that the molecules that make up each noodle can dissociate and reassociate. It’s a bit like each piece of spaghetti is made up of a small Lego. ” continues the researcher.

Another big advantage of this approach: damaged circuits, for example with cracks, they are not thrown away. They can be repaired or their components separated for recycling.

Environmental impact assessment

If vPCB is adopted globally, the effect would be very positive. In fact, recycling them would make it possible to reduce global warming potential by 48% and carcinogenic emissions by 81% compared to traditional PCBs.

With this type of project, there always remains a critical issue to consider: it costs. Bichlien H. Nguyen, another of the authors, therefore argues: “ For these systems to actually be implemented, there must be cost parity and strict government regulations. “. A Pragmatic Vision.” Moving forward, we must design and optimize materials with sustainability measures as our first principle. ” he continues.

This team has taken an important step in finding sustainable e-waste recycling solutions, but if they go it alone, their efforts will not have enough impact. Specific actions will also be required from public and private entities overcome economic and regulatory hurdles and finally make this technology a large-scale reality. Fingers crossed!

  • Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new formula for making printed circuit boards using a durable polymer, vitrimer.
  • This design allows easy recycling of circuits that are usually very complex.
  • Their adoption on a global scale would have a very positive impact, but the question of the economic viability of putting it into production and adapting the regulations still remains.

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