Water-soluble circuit boards promise a drastic reduction in e-waste

Shawn Knight

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Staff member
Why it matters: A UK-based electronics manufacturer has developed what it is calling the world's first fully recyclable PCB substrate. Widespread adoption could revolutionize the e-waste industry, and at least one major player has already signed up to participate.

Infineon recently announced it will be adopting Jiva Materials' Soluboard, a biodegradable printed circuit board constructed of natural plant-based fibers. Instead of shredding and burning the PCB once it has been discarded, recyclers can submerge it in hot water (90 C / 194 F) for half an hour. The hot bath causes the PCB fibers to disintegrate, leaving behind solid chips and other components that can easily be recovered and reused or sent downstream for further recycling.

Should a Soluboard slip through the cracks and end up with other electronics, it will burn just the same as regular PCBs, the company said.

The half-hour, high-temp soak should quell concerns regarding common spills like sodas onto smartphones or even quick dunks in the tub. Jiva also said it is engineering Soluboard to be resistant to high humidity environments.

Still, there's a negative emotion that comes with the idea of mixing liquids with electronics. Others have expressed concern that nefarious hardware makers could use the tech for planned obsolescence as a way to force consumers to upgrade to newer devices after a certain period of time.

Also see: Sustainable Computing, Explained

Last year, Microsoft used a Soluboard PCB to create a biodegradable computer mouse. As part of the testing process, the circuit board was dissolved in water. The main chip was recovered, baked in an oven to remove moisture and reused with no signs of performance loss. Microsoft concluded the design reduced the mouse's environmental carbon impact by 60.2 percent compared to a traditional mouse.

Interestingly enough, Microsoft said its circuit could be dissolved in just 5.5 minutes at 100 degrees Celsius or in five hours in 20 degree C water. That differs from the 90 degree C that Jiva Materials co-founder Jonathan Swanston mentioned to The Register, but perhaps Microsoft was using a composition with different characteristics.

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I can understand the appeal to this from an environmental perspective, but it sure seems like a really bad idea to me! It ultimately may even generate extra e-waste because of accidental exposure to water.
I can see this working for more simple boards. But I don't expect them to replace what we have now in motherboards or GPUs.
It's a neat idea, but it could so easily be abused, and water proofing would be null and void. humidity alone could cause major issues.
Just imagine those old arcade machines... some of them sustain significant moisture damage and STILL WORK.
Now you really, really, won't be able to spill coffee on your laptop.
Or, for that matter, take pictures poolside with your $1,500. iPhone