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Sustainable Electronics, By Design

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Published On
Aug 5, 2021

As sustainability comes into the mainstay of conversations, it's important for electrical contractors to be vigilant and aware of some developments taking place globally about sustainability and electrical engineering advancements. New materials are being used as part of electrical power systems for high- and low-voltage applications. Here are a few new innovations being researched that could be significant in the emergence of sustainable electrical and electronic designs.

Thermomagnetic generators

Thermal magnetic generators are being developed by scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and the Tohoku University in Japan by using specific alloys whose magnetism varies with very small temperature differentials. What the researchers have discovered is that using waste heat from other systems, such as power applications that produce excess heat that is ordinarily wasted, can be used in applications of alloy-coated fibers and plates that generate different levels of magnetism at different temperatures.

The difference in the magnetism generates a voltage potential that results in electricity being generated. Cumulatively, the electrical power output per small footprint can become significant over time and uses heat that ordinarily would have been wasted. These researchers are using alloys that contain nickel, manganese and gallium, and it's found on an alloy film and applied in a device footprint. The alloy thickness can vary, and that variance can be used for the waste heat to pass over it. Tiny differentials in temperature between the waste heat and ambient temperatures can generate a power voltage, which may be harnessed in series to create generators to produce power.

Displays with biodegradable materials

Another topic for electronics manufacturers and users of electronic components is that their disposal becomes problematic when companies try to achieve sustainable goals and objectives. Designing with new, biodegradable materials is another progressive innovation in the electronics industry.

Electronics are often nonbiodegradable and must be recycled or removed, and can, in some cases, be toxic or hazardous if they're not properly recycled. Researchers are finding a solution to create displays and instrumentation for electronics made from different biodegradable materials, allowing them to be landfilled or composted safely. The impetus behind this research is that in the years ahead, given the emergence of the internet of things and the wide array of connected devices found in industrial applications, dealing with discarded electronic devices, consumables and new technologies will become even more problematic.

Researchers were able to produce sustainable displays based on natural materials using conventional production methods. After use or at the end of their useful life there's no electronic scrap. Instead, displays may be disposed of. When combined with recycling and reuse, it's expected such practice would contribute significantly to help prevent some of the environmental impacts of electronic scrap. Such displays would be quite useful in medical diagnostics and food packaging.

Electronic textiles

Another sustainable design is with electronic textiles. Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden are conducting research that assists sustainable production of electronic textiles.

The scrap from electronics that is difficult to dispose of can, in many cases, be toxic and hazardous. Making such materials from cellulose offers many possibilities from which electronics textiles may be fabricated, and the afterlife of the cellulose is largely biodegradable and quite sustainable.

Electronic textiles are growing in popularity because they allow electronic gadgets and other electronic functions to be performed from wearable devices in conductive clothing. Researchers in Sweden have found that organic renewable materials for use in electronics is growing. They used cellulose conductive fibers. Cellulose and the study of cellulose has provided all new possibilities for conductive materials to be used in electronic textile fabrication.

Sewing the electrically conductive cellulose threads into a fabric allowed the prototypes to produce a thermoelectric textile that produces a small amount of electricity when heated on one side. The amount of heat is very minimal and can be the wearer’s own body heat. At a very small temperature differential, the textile can generate a small amount of electrical power that can be used for the devices or functions that they perform.

These are just a sampling of technology innovations that can potentially be used within the field of electrical engineering and different applications, from meaningful voltage use to powering very tiny electronics in wearable textiles. In the future, we can expect sustainability from electronic and electrical materials to be much more prominent and important to companies as they seek to add sustainability to their overall organizational strategies.

About the Author

Jim Romeo

Freelance Writer

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at www.JimRomeo.net.

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