Friday, March 11, 2016

A Light At the End of the Tunnel

The world is filled with very smart people. I know some days it certainly doesn't seem like it but we live in perhaps one of the most fascinating points in the existence of humanity. Humans are capable of extraordinary feats of ingenuity. We are natural problem solvers. We adapt quickly to environmental and social stimuli.

So when we get ourselves into a bit of a mess, we can usually claw our way out of it.

Thankfully some of those very smart people are applying themselves to the problems that are generated by e-waste. They seek to eliminate or mitigate some of the most toxic elements from electronic manufacturing and replace them with naturally occurring elements.

Have you heard of Green Chemistry?

Green Chemistry refers to the "design, production, and use of chemical products that reduce or eliminate substances harmful to human health and the environment, and which can be produced in a sustainable way." That sounds great. And it is - if you aren't aware that most of the goods you buy in conventional stores are riddled with toxic chemicals, I suggest you pay a little more attention.

But electronic developers and manufacturers stand to benefit significantly from Green Chemistry. Electronic devices are a complex mixture of several hundred materials. Many of these are toxic to people - heavy metals such as lead and mercury or nasty chemicals like flame retardant. Throw some PVC into the mix and you have yourself the latest and greatest gadget! Unfortunately electronics cause harm at all stages of their life cycle, from initially extracting the resources required to the recycling process, which involves a lot of burning and fire and poison floating up into the atmosphere. All of that sounds like bad news. Green Chemistry provides solutions for these problems.

Biochemical engineering is the key to replacing these toxins in electronics. Understanding the fundamental chemical makeup of inorganic solutions will lead to organic and sustainable replacements. And these changes will result in smaller and smaller chips and processors. Sound like science fiction? Check out some of the research being done at the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry here. MIT doesn't think that its so far-fetched, either.

These devices will have to be safe because pretty soon they will be going in our bodies. There are several instances where this kind of technology will not only be practical but preferable to what exists today. It doesn't seem too difficult to imagine a future where our electronics, once expired, naturally evaporate or erode in water (whether they are inside or outside of us).

The problem of e-waste seems massive now and is just one of many global problems that we have manufactured for ourselves. But we really do stand on the cusp of a consciousness shift in regards to sustainability. When electronics are organic (or nearly so) endless problem solving possibilities will arise.

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