Sustainable Electronics Materials: Game-Changer for PCB Manufacturing

By
EN
Emily Newton
on September 20, 2022
Printed circuit board without electronic components ready for assembly

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a major global problem. Statistics from 2019 confirmed a record 53.6 million metric tons of it were discarded that year. They also suggested e-waste figures will reach 74.7 metric tons by 2030. Another worrying finding showed only 17.4% of 2019’s electronic waste was recycled. 

There’s no single solution to this problem. However, the increased usage of sustainable electronics materials would help. Consumers must also have resources that help them find eco-friendly electronic products. 

Sources also suggest that discarded printed circuit boards (PCBs) comprise 3%-6% of e-waste by weight. Thus, finding sustainable manufacturing materials for those extremely common components would be a notable step in the right direction. Here’s a closer look at what’s possible.

 

A long-term interest in sustainability results in green electronics materials

Many of the world’s best inventions come from situations where creators notice current issues or room for improvement. As a result, they often feel motivated to cause the changes they want to see in the world rather than waiting for others to act. Such was the case with Jack Herring.

While still in his 20s and studying product design at London’s Royal College of Art, Herring took inspiration from his long-term interest in solving environmental problems. He focused on e-waste and eventually made the world’s first totally recyclable substrate, the Soluboard.

The Soluboard, the world’s first totally recyclable PCB substrate produced by Jack Herring

Credit: SundayGuardianLive

 

Conventional PCBs feature fiberglass and epoxy. The only way to extract those materials for reuse in other boards is to shred and incinerate them. However, Herring and his team developed a better option for eco-friendly electronic products. They created a flax-based alternative that delaminates the PCB when placed in hot water. People can then safely recover the materials and dispose of them or put them in a compost pile. 

This innovation launched an associated startup called Jiva Materials Limited. Herring and his team planned to initially target the European market and pitch the Soluboard for use in household appliances, such as washing machines and refrigerators. From there, they intended to branch out into the United States. 

It’ll be a while before inventions like these achieve widespread adoption rates. However, such gradual breakthroughs are undoubtedly important for the lessons they’ll teach PCB manufacturers.

 

Pursuing eco-friendly soldering solutions is a good start

PCB manufacturers must consider various aspects during all production phases. For example, they need to select the right welding cables to attach electronic components with solder. The welding cable’s amperage is a primary concern when choosing the right size. This indicates the maximum electrical current the welding lead can safely handle. However, the gauge, electrical resistance and insulation can all affect the amperage. 

One practical way to move sustainable electronics materials forward is to focus on soldering options that are kinder to the environment, such as lead-free solder. This alternative has an approximate 217 F melting point. It typically contains copper or tin as a lead replacement. 

People who use soldering irons as hobbyists are typically very familiar with lead-free solder. It’s usually hard for nonindustrial customers to source due to the well-known safety risks associated with lead exposure. However, the push to use more eco-friendly electronic products has garnered more interest from professional manufacturers.

Close up of a soldering process of a printed circuit board

 

Researchers in Ireland worked on a model to predict the reliability of lead-free solder joints. Such data could encourage PCB makers to do things differently in favor of improved sustainability. A 2021 Deloitte study found that nearly one-quarter of industrial leaders had directly experienced how environmental and sustainability efforts supported people, profits and the planet. Thus, they intended to ramp up their efforts over the coming year. 

Sustainability efforts should ideally go beyond the materials and equipment used to attach components to PCBs. However, those areas of the process are excellent starting points. A welding cable’s jacket has insulation that protects it from cutting, tearing and abrasions. That’s one of the reasons it could last years if a person uses it carefully and by following the manufacturer’s instructions. Relatedly, lead-free soldering has a less negative impact on the environment than lead-based solder. 

These examples show how PCB manufacturers can start small by investigating sustainable electronics materials. Some producers in the electronics sector may also wish to explore how to make their processes more efficient and less resource-dependent. One way to do that is by using automated equipment. One PCB manufacturer only needs a three-day turnaround window to make customers’ products due to its highly automated system. 

 

Other ways to make eco-friendly electronic products

People are still in the early stages of figuring out the most feasible and sustainable materials for printed circuit boards. However, the progress made so far is still exciting, and it could pave the way for Earth-conscious electronics that span beyond PCBs. 

A team makes flexible sensors from wood

One sustainable example is an achievement that allowed Swiss researchers to give wood electrically conductive properties by improving an existing process called laser-induced graphitization. The team built electronic component prototypes of spruce, cherry and beech veneers measuring only half a millimeter thick.

A basic electronic device made from wood and cables attached to a battery

Credit: EMPA

 

The team believed their work could lead to flexible strain sensors discreetly embedded into buildings to monitor structural health. The people working on this project also added an electroluminescent layer to make the sensors glow. Those could eventually become part of control panels or backlit displays. Moreover, the researchers may find ways to replace conventional wiring and electronic components with ones made from wood, leading to creative ways to utilize sustainable electronics materials.

 

Paper considered a possible primary material for future eco-friendly electronic products

People only need to look at items like fast-food restaurant napkins, notebooks, and food packages to be reminded how far researchers have come in figuring out how to recycle paper. However, a European consortium with 11 partners is working on something more relevant to the electronics industry. It aims to make paper-based printed electronics. 

Some reasons for including paper in the exploration of sustainable electronics materials are that recycling is already a common and well-established option. It can even be biodegradable depending on how material processing occurs.

Paper-based PCB

Credit: SUPERSMART project

 

The team developed a shock sensor and a smart anti-counterfeiting label to demonstrate their progress. Those products showed the possibilities of printing electronic circuits and displays directly onto paper. A smartphone app complements these solutions to read the associated data.

The researchers’ life cycle assessment of using paper versus plastic for PCB substrates showed that the paper option would only cause 10%-20% of the environmental impact associated with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic.

 

Additive manufacturing creates PCBs better for the environment

Besides looking for sustainable electronics materials, some people are trying to create more eco-friendly PCBs by making major changes to manufacturing methods. A European Union-funded project called SmartEEs2 gives a good example of what’s possible. It relied on using additive manufacturing to make copper-based solderable circuits.

The PCB substrates made by additive manufacturing are up to 15 times thinner than those produced with traditional methods. Thus, people using this process can cut material consumption and waste. This approach does not need the toxic chemicals associated with PCB etching. Plus, it runs at a lower temperature than conventional methods, saving energy. 

The team utilized multilayer printing to make a smart label prototype. They said it included a low-power temperature sensor and logger, plus a near-field communication interface, an antenna and a compact battery. One of the standout aspects of the battery is that it gets power from a printed solar cell.

Close up of 3D printing a PCB circuit

Credit: Voltera

 

The future for sustainable electronics materials looks bright

It could take a while for sustainable electronics materials to become mainstream. Many manufacturers initially balk at doing things differently, even if they’re widely available. That’s particularly true if trying new options requires investing in more equipment. However, these examples emphasize why people have much to feel hopeful about as researchers continue looking for innovative solutions

The demand for consumer electronics is unlikely to drop substantially, especially as so many people use these devices for everything from entertainment to communication. Additionally, many products with PCBs are now critical for numerous industries.

These realities mean there’s no time to waste in looking for materials that make the associated products sustainable and high-performing. The possibilities are undoubtedly exciting and could forever change electronics production for the better.

 

Emily Newton, Revolutionized

Emily Newton, Editor-in-Chief at Revolutionized

Emily Newton is an industrial journalist with over four years of experience. As Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, she regularly covers this industry and how technology contributes to its evolution.

 

*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.