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Crisis or no, electronics is an area that continues to thrive. Worldwide, growth rates for the electronics industry in 2012 were 9%, higher than during the years 2011 or 2010 and there are no signs that 2013 will be any different. While the mobile revolution has bestowed boons and benefits on communication accessibility and device interoperability around the world, the concomitant growth in electronics waste from smartphones, tablets, computers and so on - some 50 million tons annually - is presenting serious problems for the environment.

Karen Laird

November 27, 2013

4 Min Read
Bio-on’s biodegradable PHAs reduce environmental impact of e-waste

Crisis or no, electronics is an area that continues to thrive. Worldwide, growth rates for the electronics industry in 2012 were 9%, higher than during the years 2011 or 2010 and there are no signs that 2013 will be any different. While the mobile revolution has bestowed boons and benefits on communication accessibility and device interoperability around the world, the concomitant growth in electronics waste from smartphones, tablets, computers and so on - some 50 million tons annually - is presenting serious problems for the environment.

It's an issue that is being tackled by the European Union with increasingly stringent regulations and legislation. Just last year, the European Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which aims to reduce the amount of WEEE going to landfill, was revised and tightened. Under this directive, manufacturers and producers are required to take a whole-life responsibility for their products and to meet mandatory collection targets. They must also provide data to demonstrate compliance.

In an effort to address this problem and to aid manufacturers in meeting their recovery targets, an Italian company called Bio-on is exploring a solution involving a combination of bioplastic and nanotechnology.

bio-on-bioplastic.jpgBio-on developed and patented a method to produce PHAs (polyhydroxyalkoanates) by fermenting residues from the sugar - cane and beet - industry, after which the material is extracted using what the company calls "a natural process" in which no solvents are used. Marco Astorri, CEO and co-founder of Bio-on: "Using waste as feedstock means that we can keep the costs down. And by not using solvents, we eliminate an expensive and highly polluting step. Instead, we use a mechanical extraction process." He added that Bio-on uses natural selection only for its bacteria, emphasizing that no genetic modification processes take place. "It's a totally different process that used by other PHA producers," he said.

Once the PHAs are extracted, they are dried, yielding a white dust that is ready for use or that, if desired, may undergo further processing. The remaining organic matter is returned for use in a new fermentation cycle, serving as food for new bacteria.

The patented PHAs developed by Bio-on offer enhanced thermal and mechanical resistance, the company says, and are processable using conventional production technologies. They are suitable for application in a wide range of rigid or flexible objects and for replacing the PET, PP, PS, HDPE, LDPE and PE, currently used to manufacture bottles, food packaging, auto parts, furnishings, fibers, packaging film and electronics.

Previously, for example, Bio-on's PHA was used in the high-end design product Miss Sissi, the FLOS lamp designed in 1991 by Philippe Starck and now an icon in lighting design, where it replaced the polycarbonate hitherto used to produce the lamp.

"The process allows us to blend in vivo," Astorri said. "We can determine the characteristics of the material during fermentation, which means that we can produce a very wide range of different grades of PHA."

Bio-on has now announced that its biopolymer, which is 100% naturally biodegradable at ambient temperatures in salt and fresh water and soil, can also be used as a substrate for electrical circuits. Combined with the right nanofillers, it becomes a nanocomposite with highly conductive properties.

According to Astorri, this makes it possible to build electronic devices with a reduced environmental impact. "Not only smartphones and tablets," he said. "We can extend it to highly advanced technological sectors, thanks to the multiple features of our bioplastics, their outstanding technical performance and excellent biocompatibility." He added: "In the future, this will also enable us to develop sensors and electro-medical equipment for health care."

The technology was originally investigated by a team of Italian researchers from the Departments of Engineering of the Universities of Modena-Reggio Emilia and Perugia, who presented the preliminary results of this research presented in Rome during BIOPOL 2013, the International Conference on Biodegradable and Biobased Polymers. These researchers examined how electrical and electronic circuits could be incorporated into plastic substrates for the production of flexible, lightweight and easily integrated electronics. The team integrated carbon nanoparticles, such as nanotubes and graphene, into the PHA material produced by Bio-on, with as result a conductive composite suitable for the development of sustainable electronics with a low environmental impact.

"This type of plastic reduces the environmental impact of the device, making recovery easier and cheaper," said Paola Fabbri, a researcher at the Enzo Ferrari Department of Engineering of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

The initial results of this research therefore look very promising. If, indeed, many of the plastics currently used in electronics can in the future be replaced by biopolymers, such as those manufactured by Bio-on, businesses could benefit strongly by reducing the environmental impact of electronic devices, as evaluated by means of life cycle analysis, and thus promoting compliance with the targets set by European legislation. 

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