Bendable, biodegradable computer: ANU engineers fight e-waste

If you've ever had to get a new phone because your old one was bent out of shape, Australian National University scientists have got your back.

While they haven't invented a phone that bends, they have invented a thin, bendable semiconductor that is also biodegradable.

The semiconductor is the part of the phone that does the computing.

ANU PhD candidate Ankur Sharma examines a new biodegradeable, bendable organic semi-conductor, which aims to lead the way to bendable phones.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

ANU PhD candidate Ankur Sharma examines a new biodegradeable, bendable organic semi-conductor, which aims to lead the way to bendable phones. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

PhD researcher Ankur Sharma, lead senior researcher Associate Professor Larry Lu and their colleagues invented part of the semiconductor using organic and inorganic materials.

The organic component, made from carbon and hydrogen, is just one atom thick; the inorganic component is about two atoms thick.

"It's very small, it's not seen by the naked eye," Mr Sharma said.

"When you make the material so thin, it makes your phone possibly be flexible in the future."

Mr Sharma's passion for engineering came from his desire to help the environment, and by making a biodegradable phone component he hoped to address the world's electronic waste problem.

"Right now in your mobile phone you have a silicon chip. We make about a billion of these devices," he said.

"We don't know what to do with the old devices because every year a new phone is coming out.

"We need to keep up to date with the latest technology without the guilt of harming the environment at the cost of technology."

He said bendable phones could be made using the same organic material for both the screen and the processor in the near future.

"That is [the] dream," Mr Sharma said.

The ANU team’s semiconducting material, which cannot be seen with the naked eye, sits in between gold electrodes on the chip. Photo: Supplied / ANU

The ANU team’s semiconducting material, which cannot be seen with the naked eye, sits in between gold electrodes on the chip. Photo: Supplied / ANU

Engineers were able to create the super-thin semiconductor material by using a process called chemical vapour deposition.

They then attached the semiconductors onto a computer chip.

This required them to heat up the materials into a gas, allowing them to take the atoms out of the gas and place them together precisely how they chose onto a chip.

The organic material is pentacine, a natural semiconductor itself, and by combining it with the inorganic Molybdenum di-sulfide the engineers were able to create the hybrid semiconductor.

The semiconductor Mr Sharma and his colleagues have invented has shown a highly efficient ability to convert energy into light, ideal for high-resolution screens on phones, TVs and other electronic devices.

"That is the key," Mr Sharma said.

He said he would now look to work with industry to continue testing, develop more of the semiconductors and work towards the device combining both a bendable screen and semiconductor.

"We have to test the feasibility of these materials with the current device," Mr Sharma said.

He said the semiconductor could be recycled multiple times and could target a lot of the world's plastic and electronic waste.

The research is published in journal Advanced Materials.