Skip to main content

Research team awarded grant to explore eco-manufacturing of soft electronics

“In with the old and out with the new” has not only become a motto, but a way of life for manufacturers as businesses attempt to keep up with rapidly growing competition and demand. But the aftermath is looming as the amount of waste during production and post-production usage continues to grow to unsustainable levels.

An interdisciplinary team of engineers was awarded a $3 million Future Manufacturing Research Grant from the National Science Foundation to further their research into soft electronics and eco-manufacturing processes to address this epidemic of waste.

Yong Zhu, Andrew A. Adams Distinguished Professor

Yong Zhu, the principal investigator of the proposal and the Andrew A. Adams Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at NC State, has been studying soft electronics and manufacturing processes for the past decade.

The grant will support further research into the eco-manufacturing of recyclable soft electronics. This will be accomplished through studying the integration of select biodegradable and recyclable materials and the utilization of sustainable manufacturing processes guided with economic and environmental life-cycle assessments.

“Soft electronics is a new branch in the realm of electronics,” said Zhu. “It has big potential impact in a variety of fields such as healthcare, sports, human-machine interactions and robotics. For example, it has the potential to personalize healthcare as ultra-thin and flexible, sometimes stretchable, sensors could be developed that can be easily wearable for patients to monitor their vitals.

The team’s research addresses challenges including excessive amounts of used and wasted electronics, the rapid consumption of materials such as Gallium and Indium which are already scarce, and tremendous energy consumption in making these electronics in the first place.

“Devices like cell phones and laptops nowadays have shorter lives and are growing in production, so waste is an enormous issue,” said Zhu. “The manufacturing processes involve a lot of energy consumption for products that don’t use a lot of energy themselves.”

The team’s project is divided into five areas: materials development, eco-manufacturing, biodegradation/recycling, environmental and economic life-cycle assessment, and education and workforce development.

Ultimately the researchers will create a substrate of cellulose composite which will be reinforced to support a semiconductor formed from a new conjugated polymer, an electrical insulator formed from a composite with selected fillers, and a conductor composed of a silver nanowire network.

The team’s research into soft electronics allows them to explore challenges associated with developing high-performance materials that are either recyclable, renewable or biodegradable while exploring viable options for an all-printing-based manufacturing framework to enable scalable fabrication of these electronics.

“Specifically in terms of electronics, we don’t want to change the semiconductor industry,” said Zhu. “We just want to investigate this emerging field of soft electronics where we can incorporate biodegradable materials and manufacturing processes.”

Researchers on the interdisciplinary team have backgrounds in fields including flexible and stretchable electronics, polymer chemistry, manufacturing engineering, chemical and materials engineering, science education and sustainability. The research effort builds on earlier research from NC State, including a strategy to recycle silver nanowire percolation networks and a method for printing flexible and stretchable silver nanowire circuits.

Faculty members involved in the project include Margaret Blanchard, a University Faculty Scholar and professor in the Department of STEM Education at NC State; Jingyan Dong, a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State; Orlin Velev, S. Frank and Doris Culberson Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State; Richard Venditti, Elis Signe Olsson Professor in the Department of Forest Biomaterials at NC State; Yuan Yao, an assistant professor of industrial ecology and sustainable systems at Yale University; and Wei You, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at UNC Chapel Hill.

It is through this interdisciplinary project that the team hopes to train a diverse cohort of future engineers and scientists to tackle challenges in education and workforce development related to eco-manufacturing of soft electronics. The team plans to accomplish this through curriculum innovation, teacher professional development, outreach and student internships, with a commitment to increasing the diversity in the workforce.