This story is from the 2019 Access FYI: FedEx Young Innovators List. Explore more from this issue
Flat-lay of batteries

Transient Technology: A New Way to Handle E-Waste

Researchers at two universities are exploring ways to address toxic chemicals in batteries and circuit boards.

Flat-lay of batteries

With consumers cycling through technological devices faster than ever, disposal of electronic components — also known as e-waste — has become a global environmental and public health issue. Electronics create cancer-producing dioxins that are released into the air as they’re burned. When disposed of in landfills, these toxins may leach into groundwater and affect local resources.

Two researchers understanding the effect of e-waste on the environmentReza Montazami, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Yuanfen Chen, graduate student, Iowa State University

Reza Montazami, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University and associate at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, is leading the charge to reduce e-waste with his exploration of “transient technology” that dissipates when exposed to light, heat or liquid.

The latest development from Montazami and his team is a self-destructing lithium-ion battery. The components and structure are all very close to commercially developed battery technology. But when you drop it in water, the battery casing swells, breaks apart the electrodes and dissolves away. While nanoparticles in the battery don’t degrade, they do disperse as the electrodes break apart, which mitigates environmental impact.

Professor John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is exploring a similar process with silicon circuit boards. In 2012, Rogers discovered that silicon on its own is actually water-soluble. While circuit boards are generally 1 millimeter thick, only the surface is used to transport charge.

After a series of experiments, Rogers and his team determined that a much smaller circuit board of 100 nanometers could do the same job but dissolve in a landfill site in 3–6 months. And while reducing e-waste is the primary benefit of this form of transient technology, a secondary benefit has emerged: data protection. That’s because all data on the circuit boards is wiped out when the boards disintegrate.

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