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Earth Technology Hardware

Plastic Circuits Designed To Enable Tough, Green Computers 67

Posted by timothy
from the I-believe-the-plastics-are-the-future dept.
DanS writes "Computerworld has an article about two Australian engineers who have invented 'Circuits in Plastic' technology. CIP designs aim to be more environmentally friendly than traditional circuits as they can be made from recycled plastic, don't contain any hazardous substances, and since packaging is part of the base circuit board, there is no need for additional packaging material. As an added bonus, different 3D shaped circuits can be made using CIP, which are also waterproof. No more ruining cell phones by getting them wet! The hope is that the technology will reduce the amount of toxic electronic waste in landfills, as even with lead-free technology, etching of existing printed circuit boards (and disposal of the chemicals) is a significant issue during manufacturing."
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Plastic Circuits Designed To Enable Tough, Green Computers

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  • by Majik Sheff (930627) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @01:59AM (#28665657) Journal

    I'd love to start using this tech in my prototypes. The big question of course is how this stuff compares to an equivalently functional traditional PCB in price.

    Another question that comes to mind has to do with the well established design principles used in RF level circuits. Parasitic capacitance calculations and all of the nastiness that goes along with it will become even more like black magic now that it has crossed into the third dimension.

    • by sortius_nod (1080919) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @03:04AM (#28665839) Homepage

      These guys were on a TV show called "The New Inventors" on ABC here in Australia. The functionality becomes limited at about 5 layers, at least that's what they said. The main concern is the size of the board, then again, you can use the board as the chassis without a worry with this tech.

      It was interesting, but I don't see it in it's current form moving us ahead leaps and bounds. It's years from becoming usable I'd suspect.

    • by mrderm (685352)
      Prototypes? Only if you expect to get everything right first time. Rework would be impossible with the conductors and components inaccessible.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Don't even start with RF. This could only work for simple low performance digital circuits. Screen printed conductors are too crappy for high-speed designs.

      Of course authors forgot to mention that pretty much any circuit can be made waterproof by conformal coating or dipping into epoxy.

    • It's cheaper (Score:3, Insightful)

      by SofaMan (454881)

      I saw this. The designers claim it works out about 10% cheaper than conventional PCBs.

  • by jacquesm (154384) <j@[ ]com ['ww.' in gap]> on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:05AM (#28665679) Homepage

    If this process is going to be mainstream they'll have to get some kind of cost benefit attached, otherwise the only way there is going to be a switch is through legislation.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:31AM (#28665755)

      http://www.griffith.edu.au/engineering-information-technology/centre-wireless-monitoring-applications/research/circuits-in-plastic/cost-comparisons

       

      Production costs â" Environmental Sensor $ per board 1000 units 10000 units
      Standard PCB $10.12 $9.27
      Lead-Free PCB $10.74 $9.90
      Circuits in Plastic $9.82* $7.39*
      Production costs â" Strain gauge circuit. $ per board 1000 units 10000 units
      Standard PCB $18.00 $$13.00
      Lead-Free PCB $19.10 $13.88
      Circuits in Plastic $13.74* $9.18*

      Seems to be cheaper, but seeing as this is the site belonging to the makers I'll give it a good amount of doubt for now.

      Further, I'm not entirely sure how long these circuits can last? And also how they handle in high temperatures.

      I was confused exactly how this would conduct but apparently it's more or less the same as normal PCBs.

      All in all, interesting new tech that's a big step in the right direction.

      • And also how they handle in high temperatures.

        That was my first thought. But maybe a closed loop liquid cooling solution might work, circulating a fluid into a hollow plastic heat sink.

      • by jacquesm (154384)

        Those figures were vapourware, they never actually produced any of that, they also chose circuits that have an advantage when made in plastic because they do not need to be sealed afterwards.

        in my experience, producing fairly large quantities of pcbs is so cheap that it is going to take a very well thought out assembly process to compete with that.

        And then there is the fact that a circuit made using this tech is essentially unreparable.

    • Maybe not (Score:4, Insightful)

      by P0ltergeist333 (1473899) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:39AM (#28665779)

      One of the major reasons many businesses outsourced their electronics production was because of environmental and workplace safety issues due to the heavy metals and solvents used and left over. If widely adopted, this sort of thing could jump start a mini industrial revolution. I would think that re-usable components would reduce the cost of replacement parts on all electronic devices, especially with widespread adoption. Do you have any idea how many perfectly good resistors and capacitors lie in landfills? And the amount of chemical waste to produce those wasted components... Big business would have to be pretty ignorant to pass this one up if it works half as well as it appeared to on the video. Also, as someone who has worked in most aspects of electronics manufacture (PCB fab, IC fab, IC packaging, and SMD / through hole assembly and test from r&d to mass production scales), I could see this process being more efficient and less costly than current SMD and PCB manufacturing. Hard to say for sure without finding out more, but this looks hopeful!

      • Do you have any idea how many perfectly good resistors and capacitors lie in landfills?

        A friend of mine and I used to save all sorts of electrical and electronic parts, rather like pack rats. We'd desolder boards to remove individual components to save. With a shelf full of small boxes the components could be separated to make it easier to find one of a specific value, from caps to resisters to chips. Need a 7400LS? They're in that box over there.

        Falcon

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dbIII (701233)
      That really depends upon what the additional cost is once there is an economy of scale. If it is not much more just putting a sticker on the front that says "green" may be enough. Also if that $65 iPod now costs $8 instead of 80c to make but has the advantage of being splashproof there is still plenty of opportunity to sell a lot of them and make a profit.
      Personally I hate the idea of using the blunt instrument of legislation - I think it's likely that such technology with find a niche without a requireme
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by rohan972 (880586)

      If this process is going to be mainstream they'll have to get some kind of cost benefit attached, otherwise the only way there is going to be a switch is through legislation.

      How about (from the summary):
      No more ruining cell phones by getting them wet!
      That's worth big dollars, particularly to people such as myself who do most of our work outdoors. I'd love to have feature parity on a truly waterproof smartphone, and am quite willing to pay.

      • by jacquesm (154384)

        yes, because regular electronics can't be sealed...

        • by rohan972 (880586)

          yes, because regular electronics can't be sealed...

          My current phone has a slide screen, difficult for me to seal. Good water resistant phones I've seen don't have the feature set I want. I don't want to have to modify my phone hardware to be suitable for my business, I want to buy it as suitable.

  • According to the article the circuits can be made from recycled plastic and then when they are ready to be retired the components of the circuits themselves can be recycled into new circuits. Seems like it really is a bit of a step up in several ways.

    Of course now our electronics will have to be added to the list of things we can't just throw away when they quit working. I mean... there's plastic IN there.
    • by anarchyboy (720565) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @04:07AM (#28665995)
      Allready you shouldn't just be throwing away your electronic devices when they stop working.
      • by Dantu (840928)

        Allready you shouldn't just be throwing away your electronic devices when they stop working.

        Have you ever tried to recycle your electrics?

        I know I'm supposed to do something with them, but honestly, they expect me to drive to one location in the city, during business hours, and pay just to get rid of an old cell phone? Even for a computer, I'd feel guilty, but it'll go in the dumpster. I did take batteries back to one of the local stores that is part of a group that claims they take batteries back to recycle:
        Me: Can you take these batteries for recycling, like your website says
        Help Desk

        • I never said it was easy just that you shouldn't, you are dead right it is too hard at the moment. In EU legislation was passed to encourage the proper disposal of electronics. I believe the legislation requires the companys that sell the goods to also accept goods for recycling but I'm not entirely sure. The problem is as you've pointed out that there is at the moment no simple method of recycling electronic goods. The solution should really be to make recycling of electronics much easier, having more plac
    • Recycling electronics components sounds like a good idea, but is unpractical. Components could could be recycled as a material source, that's all. Nobody will reuse the components in a new circuit.

      And recycling them as a material is not much different from the current technology, where actually recycling them is MUCH more difficult than taking them out of the circuit.

      • Even the things that are claimed to be recycled by Major Corporations frequently aren't. There are far too many landfills in third world countries. Paying the local govt or community a small stipend versus the comparative exorbitant recycling cost.
  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:10AM (#28665691)

    In the near future, we design artificial intelligence and put it to work for us. In fifty years, biodegradable robots packaged in ecofriendly human hide take over. This'll just make it easier for them to recycle their dead while we work in their salt mines.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      In the near future, we design artificial intelligence and put it to work for us. In fifty years, biodegradable robots packaged in ecofriendly human hide take over. This'll just make it easier for them to recycle their dead while we work in their plastic mines.

      Fixed that for you.

      • Well, I don't see anyone mining plastic, but the robots surely could recycle us to synthesize plastic.
        • by BluBrick (1924)

          Well, I don't see anyone mining plastic, but the robots surely could recycle us to synthesize plastic.

          Perhaps we don't mine plastic, but we do mine "plastic ore [wikipedia.org]".

        • by DeadDecoy (877617)
          With all the plastic that gets buried in landfills, there most certainly will be underground repositories of plastic for us to mine.
      • by Jesus_666 (702802)

        In the near future, we design artificial intelligence and put it to work for us. In fifty years, biodegradable robots packaged in ecofriendly human hide take over. This'll just make it easier for them to recycle their dead while we work as horribly impractical and physically unfeasible living batteries.

        Saw a documentation about that one.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      If you were an AI running Earth through numerous mobile terminals, would you even want humans around? They tend to make parts corrode when they get wrapped around your axles.

  • by Mashiara (5631)

    How will they achieve this without encasing all the components in the plastic, even if the board conductors were all encased (it's not like the anti-solder screen [green stuff on the board] could not be made waterproof and I think it already is) at least some of the components simply cannot be (due to heat dissipation problems). I have made completely waterproof circuit boards (simple PWM stuff, they don't generate enough heat for it to be an issue), the only connectors are rated for underwater and the boar

  • by the_raptor (652941) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @02:15AM (#28665707)

    So the battery is encased in plastic as well and thus can't be recharged by an external connection?

    There are also no other external connectors like headphone jacks or USB ports?

    There are plenty of technologies to waterproof electronics, they are just limited by the above inconveniences. The reason that the traditional circuit manufacturing technique is so environmentally unfriendly is because it is incredibly cheap. There are all sorts of ways it could be made more environmentally sound (like not shipping "recycled" electronics to Africa/China to be broken up by children), but it is not going to happen without significant market or government intervention.

    And plastics aren't that great environmentally to begin with, even if they contain significant amounts of recycled material.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Wireless power, wireless headphones, wireless computer sync. Cell phones tend to lead the way in these wireless matters anyway, they have every reason to say these will all be plausible before this becomes mainstream.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Mashiara (5631)

        See my point above about heat dissipation, encasing everything in plastic that is very poor conductor of heat is not an option.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by blindseer (891256)

          I had to go check and, yep, my current cell phone is completely encased in plastic. It would seem that thermal issues are not the problem you make them out to be. Is there some indication that these new plastics would somehow be less thermally conductive?

          • by Mashiara (5631)

            Maybe I used the wrong word, not my native language...

            The cell phone likely has some places where air can get in and out, earpiece and mic at the very least. I meant that the whole circuit and all the ICs would be completely inside the plastic (though I had totally forgotten about them fancy comformal coatings), same idea as dipping the whole thing in expoxy.

            It does become a problem if the heat can't get away, at the very least component lifetime would significantly shortened (though who cares whether the t

    • More to the point, what current cellphones are damaged by getting them a bit wet? Quite a few people I know have dropped their phones into puddle, down drains, and (in one case) into the toilet and had them work. One person I know dropped his phone in the sea. He needed to wash it off with fresh water to make sure there was no salt corroding the circuits and then leave it to dry before turning it back on, but that was all.
      • I was helping to manage wireless mics for a local musical production. A member of the ensemble dropped $800 of pack and mic into the toilet. We took the battery out, left it to sit, and on the second day I tested it, it lit right up again. We didn't even drop it in a bag of rice, but that probably would have sped up the evaporation process.
    • begin with

      That all depends on what type of plastic it is and how it is made. Perhaps you didn't know that before Du Pont received a patent on making nylon [wikipedia.org] from synthetic polymers plastic was made from plants. The old Cellophane [wikipedia.org] plastic wrap was made from plant cellulose [wikipedia.org]. Kodak used to make film [dvxuser.com] from cellulose. Today bioplastics [wikipedia.org] are making a comeback. Despite the recession, their market [icis.com] is expanding.

      Falcon

  • The article tells us: “At the end of the circuit's life the components are mechanically disassembled and recycled which means a lower carbon footprint compared with the shredding and incineration of traditional circuits.”

    There's a link from that, too, but I don't see any specifics on this mechanical disassembly process. Just another task to be performed by the underpaid Chinese underclass, or would we actually be encouraged to pull our own elderly computers to bits?

    • by rohan972 (880586)

      There's a link from that, too, but I don't see any specifics on this mechanical disassembly process.

      I presume you mean this link:
      http://www.computerworld.com.au/article/267964/aussie_computer_recycling_plant_saves_20_000_tonnes_e-waste [computerworld.com.au]
      "The Sims recycling plant, opened Wednesday in Sydney, will reduce monitors and circuit boards into basic components such aluminium, copper, silver and gold to be shipped to overseas sites for further processing."

      "The plant uses eddy current systems and magnets to separate components including gold, silver and copper once primary compacting machines have reduced compu

  • by Anonymous Coward

    http://www.abc.net.au/tv/newinventors/txt/s2616421.htm

  • If anybody is interested the two inventors of this technology where recently on the ABC's show "New Inventors". The episode they were in is here [abc.net.au] (mp4 format). Or you can probably find the clip which has only their invention here [abc.net.au].
  • a few downsides (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Eil (82413) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @03:50AM (#28665963) Homepage Journal

    Embedding electronic components and circuit pathways into hunks of plastic sounds like a fairly obvious evolutionary step up from the printed circuit board. If they can make the manufacturing process is cheap enough, I can't see why it wouldn't be the standard for consumer electronics in the foreseeable future.

    Some downsides to consider:

    Prototyping will be more difficult. If you discover a fatal bug in a non-trivial circuit, it can't be jumpered or otherwise worked around easily.

    Calling it a "green" technology is insidious. Sure the manufacturing processes may involve fewer chemicals, but the resulting hunks of plastic are going to be much more difficult to recycle than components laid out on a PCB. The electronics industry is already a throw-away-when-obsolete economy, this will only help expand the concept further.

    Hackers are going to have a much more difficult time modifying and repurposing their gear. You can't just solder and desolder the components and rewire things to make them do what you want. I guess many manufacturers will consider this a security feature (e.g., no more modchips on video game consoles). Reverse engineering hardware will also be more tricky. Where you might have needed a screwdriver before, you'll now need a drill.

    Upsides to consider:

    Building your own computer will basically be like playing with big Legos with drives, memory, and GPUs inside them.

    • by CAIMLAS (41445)

      [quote]Prototyping will be more difficult. If you discover a fatal bug in a non-trivial circuit, it can't be jumpered or otherwise worked around easily.[/quote]

      Why not just prototype on PCB, then?

      [quote]Calling it a "green" technology is insidious.[/quote]

      Agreed and seconded! most "green" technology is just that: insidious. It's not green at all (and often, arguably not as 'green' as what it's replacing). Cases in point: E85/ethanol, biodiesel, lithium-powered cars, solar and lead-acid battery "green" power

      • by Eil (82413)

        Why not just prototype on PCB, then?

        I mean a prototype of the final product. If you have good engineers, the circuit itself is not often terribly hard to get right. In fact, most complex schematics can be fully simulated and tested on a computer before a single resistor is purchased. But in many cases the final product requires lots of testing to make sure all the "bugs" are worked out. A PCB design makes this relatively straightforward. You can see and test everything on it very quickly. Not the case with

  • Content-free website (Score:3, Informative)

    by XNormal (8617) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @04:28AM (#28666033) Homepage

    The Griffith university site [griffith.edu.au] has well over a dozen pages sparsely filled and with essentially zero technical information about this. Amazing.

  • by Hank the Lion (47086) on Sunday July 12, 2009 @04:59AM (#28666099) Journal

    I cannot find anywhere how this system interconnects the components.
    They write about the issues of current technology (solder containing lead, chemicals for etching PCB boards), but don't give an insight how their technology works around these problems. Encasing your whole device in plastic is neat, but the components will still have to be interconnected.
    How? I cannot find it in the article, nor on the site of Griffith University.

  • by mi (197448)

    The technology, if works as described, is perfectly awesome in itself — a way to build electronics, that's cheaper, water-proof, and needs no external casing. That it is also "greener" is a nice addition, but the editor's write-up over-emphasizes it, like it is the most important aspect. It simply is not...

  • I don't think anyone else has bothered to put together several interesting recent developments. For power you use the cadmium-salt nanotech solar cell tech, on either side, the base is this five-layer circuitry, the display would be liquid paper, possibly, or perhaps OLED, or both, and toss in the recent Apple patents-pending for an improved touch interface. Oh, yes, perhaps you could also tap into the body's natural electrical field and heat for additional power. Add a wireless visor display, subdermal
  • I wonder if the RepRap guys are excited about this. This could be very good news for them, they are already trying to have the RepRap make circuits.

  • Does the circuit board biodegrade over time? If so, it's a manufacturer's dream! We can keep selling over and over!
  • The hope is that the technology will reduce the amount of toxic electronic waste in landfills
    .
    What in the sechs is that?? Plastic is already killing out planet and using more will help? Wow.

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