DURHAM, N.C. — As technology continues to advance, that sometimes means people are replacing devices faster than ever, piling old electronics in a junk drawer or worse than that, throwing them out where they become harmful to the environment. 

Brittany Smith holds a recyclable sensor and current electronic metal chip. (Spectrum News 1/Rachel Boyd)


What You Need To Know

  • Researchers are developing fully recyclable electronics

  • They can use water-based inks to print on biological materials

  • This would eliminate the harmful toxins in current electronics 

An electrical engineering lab at Duke University is testing fully recyclable electronics made of biodegradable and recyclable carbons. Current electronics use massive amounts of energy and contain many hazardous chemicals that are dangerous to the environment. 

“I feel like people don't realize that they're being harmful until it's too late,” said Brittany Smith, a Ph.D candidate at Duke University. 

Seeking a solution, researchers have designed water-based inks that can print on any biological material without harming it. 

A printer generates a recyclable sensor. (Spectrum News 1/Rachel Boyd)

The sensors and switches being produced in their lab aren’t designed for any current technology like our phones or computers. But their research proves they could replace one application at a time with carbon and plant-based materials, like paper, which would allow every aspect of an electronic to be recycled.

“Looking at what we can do with simple water-based, environmentally friendly printing gives us evidence that there's a potential to continue down this path,” said Dr. Aaron Franklin a professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University. 

In the lab they’ve printed on things like apples and even leaves, but in order to make this practical, manufacturing would have to be streamlined. It currently takes one day to make a single sustainable switch. 

“Your watch, does heart rate monitoring, that's a sensor, for example, and your phone and computer works off of millions and millions of transistors, which are little switches,” Smith said. "And we're creating one of them right here.”

Printing electronics has been around for the past 20 years, but sustainable electronics are uncharted waters. 

“A lot of what we're going to be going for here is stuff that hasn't come out yet,” Smith said. “That might seem crazy now. But I think as technology and the chemistry improves, it's going to be feasible.”