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A biodegradable motherboard

A possible solution to solve the problem of electrical and electronic waste.

by Livia Formisani
17 March 2020
4 min read
by Livia Formisani
17 March 2020
4 min read

With its staggering 50 million tons of trash per year globally, electronic waste (e-waste) is a huge problem—one that is expected to increase more than two-fold by 2050. As its main components are plastic and metal, recycling e-waste is difficult and inefficient. It typically consists in shredding and incinerating circuit boards to recover the precious conductive metals they contain, such as gold, copper, silver and tin, so that they can be reused in new circuits—a polluting process that emits toxic substances.
When looking at e-waste, we are essentially facing one of the world's biggest design problems. The frequency with which we change or upgrade our mobile phones has a big impact on the increase of e-waste. That was exactly what motivated product designer Jack Herring when he invented Soluboard, a water-soluble printed circuit board (PCB) made out of flax fiber. The circuit board is, quite literally, the “motherboard" of each and every electronic device. From toasters to toys, cell phones to car assisted driving systems, each electronic device contains one. Generally composed of fiberglass and epoxy resin, the circuit board holds the electronic components that enable the device to function, connected to one another through metallic traces and conductive layers.

Biodegradable, affordable, and non-toxic

As a sustainable alternative for the substrate, Herring chose flax, a strong fiber with unique mechanical and electrical properties, presently used in the automotive sector to reinforce doors and panels. At the end of its life cycle, Jive Materials' Soluboard simply needs to be put into warm water, and it will soften and delaminate, allowing for an easy removal of components such as processors and transistors, and of the metallic traces.
The PCB is fully biodegradable, which means it can be composted, and is non-toxic. In line with security requirements, the natural flax fiber is impregnated with resin and a flame retardant to respect EU regulations and match FR-4 flame retardancy.
As the current recycling process for PCBs is inefficient since it leads to the loss of a significant amount of the very same metals it aims to recover, recycling is only economically worth it for circuits containing higher amounts of gold, such as those of computers and cell phones. A PCB allowing a more efficient recycling process, like Soluboard, would ensure that even cheaper electronic devices could be recycled.

A classic newly printed circuit board (PCB)

Innovation fuels potential

The idea for Soluboard came from Herring's experience working in the mechanical embroidery industry. It was there that he first experienced using a water-soluble material as a substrate. Later on, during a university assignment, he was asked by a teacher to focus on reducing one waste stream. Herring decided to focus on e-waste, the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, with PCBs constituting its core problem. Since then, both Soluboard and Herring were nominated for several recognitions; the product was recently awarded in the Sustainability category at the 2019 JEC Innovation Awards.
A pivotal shift will now have to come from manufacturers as the onus is on them to set up new supply chain and recycling process in order to integrate Soluboard into their final products and close the loop. Some already have, and others are preparing for the product's launch in mid-2020, which will begin with the white goods and domestic appliances market.
“We are targeting this market because it is quite well regulated in terms of how these devices are collected and taken back, especially within the EU [with its] standard dismantling processes", Herring recently explained to PCB Chat. As for the price, Soluboard will cost the same as a regular FR-4 PCB, possibly less once companies learn to leverage the product's supply chain benefits and circular features—a paradigm change businesses are just starting to grasp. Contrary to what one might expect, this change is not at all far-fetched, as more and more companies start to understand the benefits of the circular economy and pledge to do their part to save money, win new customers and add new revenue streams.
Soluboard is currently securing a fundraising round and is being patented worldwide. "It is time for us to take responsibility for our electronics and the impact they are having on the planet", explains Herring.

Next up: to expand into the US market, says Herring, as well as continue research and development, with a particular focus on multilayer PCBs and alternative substrate materials such as hemp and jute.