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productronica | how biodegradable materials and printed electronics can decrease e-waste

17th November 2023
Kristian McCann

At productronica 2023, Professor Jukka Hast of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland delivered a forward-looking talk on the intersection of sustainability and technology, specifically addressing the strides in flexible, biodegradable; recyclable and hybrid printed electronics.

“What industry is looking at today is the converting that happens to the product when it's done and what kind of converting steps there must be,” explained Hast.

Electronic waste, a significant byproduct of our digital age, poses a profound environmental and logistical challenge. Traditional electronics production is resource-intensive and the recycling process is fraught with complexity, often due to the diversity of materials and hazardous substances involved.

In contrast, printed electronics, which VTT champions, offers a paradigm shift. This technology bypasses the bulk of traditional manufacturing, instead depositing conductive materials onto flexible substrates, a process that promises to streamline production and reduce waste.

“In flexible hybrid electronics, our priorities today are focusing a lot on sustainable electronics and photonics,” Hast said. “We want to replace fossil-based materials with renewable, compostable, and recycled biomaterials."

Yet, printed electronics is not without its limitations. As Hast noted, the challenge lies in developing materials that can match the performance of conventional electronics while being environmentally friendly. VTT's approach includes using materials like PDMS, known for its skin-like properties, and exploring novel substrates like nanocellulose for their printability and biodegradability.

Yet, because of its application, its compatibility with thin, flexible substrates aligns perfectly with the development of small-scale wearables, ensuring devices remain lightweight and non-intrusive. This in turn, allows for vital, single-use devices – like a blood sugar level sensor – to be mass deployed cheaply and without bearing too big an environmental cost when disposed of.

Hast provided a glimpse into the manufacturing process of how VTT is making its materials and component, from the initial design phase to the final assembly line where components are interconnected on flexible bases. The detailed explanation covered the journey from printing conductive adhesives to the encapsulation and lamination processes, culminating in the integration of batteries and the delivery of data to mobile devices.

The talk also touched upon the exciting potential of wearable photonics, which could revolutionise healthcare monitoring through photoplethysmography technology. VTT's research into this field extends to soft optical patches capable of measuring vital signs, potentially allowing for non-invasive blood pressure monitoring. Moreover, VTT's bed sensor technology exemplifies the integration of piezoelectric films into fabrics, offering a glimpse into the future of patient monitoring.

The implications of printed sustainability efforts, and the transition to materials that can be composted or reintegrated into the production cycle represents a pivotal shift towards a circular economy.

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