Time And Liquid Metal Heals All Wounds! Yesterday as I was working at my computer my mouse started to bug out on me. The movement was spotty and every time I tried to click something I had to practically hit the button with a hammer to get it to work.
Like any red-blooded American, I tried the Fonz technique (calmly hitting the mouse with a solid thud in expectation of an immediate fix) and then resorted to bashing it against my desk when that method failed. Despite my luck with both methods in the past, neither method solved the problem.
I suspected that there might be a connection issue in the circuitry, which makes one wonder why I thought bashing the mouse would do anything to help it. Then I announced my mouse troubles to my nearby coworkers. Their response? Throw it away and get a new one (I would also note I got the same response when my chair started squeaking).
That answer should not come as a surprise to most Americans. We have become a throw-away culture, especially in the area of electronics. This makes sense when you think about it. Besides the American love of novelty, electronics and circuitry is not something well understood by most Americans.
Even among those who carry a DIY bone in their body are probably less likely to tackle an electronics project than a mechanical one. If you need any more proof, ask yourself this: If you were watching TV and you’re remotely broke, once you had tried replacing the batteries would you bust out a multimeter and soldering iron and try to fix the remote yourself or just go buy a new one?
The EPA estimates that in 2005, the U.S. discarded 1.5 to 1.9 million tons (3 billion lbs.) of computers, TVs, VCRs, monitors, cell phones, and other equipment, which is commonly called “e-waste”. In 2009, that figure jumped to 3.19 million. In 2010, the US generated an e-waste equivalent of 142,000 computers and 416,000 mobile devices every single day of the year.
On average, of all the e-waste produced in the US, only about 20 to 30% is recycled. The rest goes to landfills or who knows where (here in East Texas, people like to burn or bury their trash). Obviously, this is a big problem.
Now, I don’t think it’s very helpful to just expose a problem without offering a solution. But first, what has been the solution in the past? Well, to put it succinctly, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. According to a recent study, a ton of mobile phones contains 3.4 kilograms of silver, 340 grams of gold, 140 grams of palladium, and 130 kg of copper, which comes out to about $15,000 if these metals were extracted then sold on the market.
The e-waste recycling business is booming, with some of the smallest companies turning large profits. The fatal flaw in this solution is that the recycling businesses still have to deal with the undesirables, or the plastics and other materials that offer no value and which they usually have to pay to properly dispose of.
Unfortunately, some less ethical companies have sidestepped the proper disposal process by shipping the e-waste to countries like Mexico where labor is cheaper and there are less environmental regulations. Stories abound of huge piles of unusable e-waste in “third world” countries.
The whole point of what I’ve written comes down to this: What if instead of recycling, the broken electronic device could fix itself? Before you throw the idea out as nonsense, consider this: it’s already being done. Time And Liquid Metal Heals All Wounds. A team of US researchers has created a circuit that heals itself by inserting liquid metal into parts of the circuitry where connectivity has been reduced or lost.
Currently, their goal is to assist in space travel, by eliminating a potential failure mode for things like satellites or Mar’s rovers, but they are aware of the potential benefits to other industries as well. For example, this technology could greatly assist in battery technology.
A common reason for battery failure is that microdamage inside the battery has disrupted the flow of electrons from end to end. This could be transferred to car batteries, making them cheaper to maintain. Buttons on mobile phones sometimes stop working because constant pressure has caused cracks in the circuitry below.
Your flat screen TV, or laptop, or mouse could fix itself. If more research and development could be done in the area of self-healing electronics, we could see a huge reduction in e-waste in America and the world.