Scientists find answer to future of computer: Paper

The technology is incredible, but at times it’s not exactly eco-friendly – at least not when it comes to disposable electronics. That’s why researchers and scientists around the world try to figure out ways to limit electronic waste, and this time they may find an unexpected solution in the paper.

According to a recent study, making printed circuit boards (PCBs) out of paper could be the future of eco-friendly electronics. Here’s what we know about it.

A scientist holds a paper PCB.
State University of New York at Binghamton

Right now, PCBs are made from materials that are not eco-friendly at all, including resins, metal wiring, and glass fibers. Found in many different types of electronics, these circuit boards – along with the devices they are important parts of – often end up in landfills our planet already has to deal with in huge amounts. . Solutions are needed, and sometimes they are more creative than expected.

A research team from the State University of New York in Binghamton took a deep dive into the topic of making paper-based PCBs and, according to the study, they were successful. Dubbed “integrated Papertronic technology,” the study explores embedding resistors, supercapacitors and transistors on a thin and flexible sheet of paper. At the end of the life of the product, such PCBs can be recycled or simply dismantled without harming the environment.

The study comes with a quick diagram that shows how such a PCB can be made, and it looks quite simple, despite being a state-of-the-art technology. First the wax pattern is printed and then it is melted at 130 °C to be absorbed into the paper. Next, conductive ink is injected into the pattern, excess metal components are screen printed, through holes are cut with a laser, and a gel-based electrolyte is added to the sheet of paper.

The inks are capable of making transistors, resistors, and capacitors, and the entire structure is believed to be as flexible as the paper it was folded into. It’s also thin, and completely degradable – it burns on fire and turns to ashes as part of the test. Alternatively, it can be recycled to some extent by dissolving it in water.

Diagram showing the fabrication of a paper-based PCB.
State University of New York at Binghamton

Unfortunately, paper-based electronics have one obvious downside—they’re unlikely to perform well when faced with moisture. On the other hand, most of us avoid submerging our expensive electronics in water, so in some use cases, it can definitely work.

We have already seen honey based chips, and now we are looking at paper based PCBs. What will happen next? Hard to say, but it’s always good to see an innovative approach to ongoing problems.

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