1 March 2013

Eco-friendly "use and throw-away" electronics via carbon chemistry

Miracle carbon

Would you like a t-shirt that can go on Facebook? A TV screen that can be rolled up and taken to the park? A box of corn flakes that can show a cartoon clip? Microscopic computers and lightweight screens are on the way and in the most surprising contexts. But the production of traditional electronic components use heavy metals and rare earths, ingredients that are costly to dispose of and harmful when they end up in the environment.

Now a research group at the University of Copenhagen are to develop ink that can be used to print electronic circuits, an ink that consists entirely of carbon.

The flattest substance on earth

The research group Nano Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen is investigating the use of graphene, a special type of coal. Graphene has been nicknamed the flattest substance on earth. No matter how long and wide you make the material, the carbon is only one atom thick. Regardless, it is extremely strong and flexible, transparent and electrically conductive. This has made graphene one of the most studied substances in recent years.

High tech material for low tech countries

Kasper Nørgaard, Associate Professor at the Department of Chemistry’s Nano-Science Centre found at the University of Copenhagen explains that the graphene project is meant to strengthen the development of hightech products for the future.

“First and foremost we will investigate the materials we discover during our research to find out if they will be suitable for products that currently do not exist,” he says. But he already envisions applications that will add to the quality of life for people in developing countries.

“We expect that things like solar cells can be made more cheaply using graphene technology. This means that sooner or later, we will be able to develop cheap and portable energy sources for developing areas,” explains Nørgaard.

Broken electronics transformed to mulch

Beyond the technological advantages of graphite-electronics, there are also environmental benefits. Because graphene consists only of carbon, it can be composted with other garden waste when it breaks.

The graphene project at the Nano Science Centre is part of a larger national programme, “National Initiative for Advanced Graphene Coatings and Composites” under the Danish National Advanced Technology Foundation. The combined project is a 46 million kroner effort and runs for five years.