A Christmas present for the environment? by @DavidOAtkins

A Christmas present for the environment?

by David Atkins

From TPM's Idea Lab, this seems pretty cool:

Scientists at the University of Illinois are developing a self-healing electronic circuit that could mean a far longer lifespan for next-generation cell phones and other electronic devices, as well as for batteries. Aside from saving money for consumers, the new “autonomous” circuit could help untangle the complex chain of environmental issues that wraps around broken electronic products and spent batteries.

The basic concept of a self-healing circuit is fairly straightforward. The U of I team developed tiny capsules about ten microns (ten millionths of a meter) in diameter that are filled with a liquid metal and inserted alongside the circuit. When the circuit breaks, so do the capsules. The liquid metal seeps into the crack and restores the circuit.

As explained by U of I chemistry professor Jeffrey Moore in a recent press release:

“It simplifies the system. Rather than having to build in redundancies or to build in a sensory diagnostics system, this material is designed to take care of the problem itself.”

Self-healing circuits could help solve a sustainability conundrum for the rapidly growing consumer electronics market: batteries are essentially non-repairable, and many products are far cheaper to replace than to pay someone for repair work.

For that matter, as electronic technology keeps pace with Moore’s Law, electronic chips are becoming smaller, more densely packed and more complex, leaving fewer opportunities for human hands to fix a problem. The result is a rapidly growing mountain of e-waste.

Aside from helping to deal with consumer e-waste issues, autonomous circuits could become a significant factor in advanced applications, particularly aeronautics and military equipment, where there is little or no time for a lengthy diagnostic process let alone manual repairs.

U of I’s self-healing system works almost literally on the fly, with the potential to effect repairs before a human operator is aware that the circuit was even broken. In lab tests using just a small number of microcapsules, the U of I self-healing system repaired broken circuits in fractions of a second, and the research team reported that 90 percent of their samples were restored to within one percent of their full conductivity.

Every generation has had its Malthusians who insist that the end of the world is coming due to overpopulation and lack of sustainability. Climate change is certainly the one problem that might validate this generation's pessimists, as it's an encroaching problem that threatens the survivability of entire ecosystems rather than just of humanity itself.

But the Malthusians have always underestimated humanity's capacity for innovation and invention to overcome these issues. It will be interesting to see what sorts of solutions are brought to bear against our current myriad sustainability crises.

But one thing's for sure: more government support would be nice. Current levels of public investment in technological innovation are far too low. Increasing it would not only help address a generational sustainability crisis, but help with our transitory employment crisis as well. Fat cats who refuse to pay taxes are killing this country and the world in more ways than we can count.