European-sponsored project to increase sustainability of electronics
On 14 and 15 September 2022, TNO at Holst Centre in Eindhoven hosted the kick-off of the ECOTRON project, which has been set up to reach a sustainable electronics production process through hybrid printed electronics. In short, ECOTRON aims to create more sustainable electronics by using printing and dismantling techniques that allow low-energy production processes and a circular build-up of materials that are potentially of ‘renewable’ or compostable origin.
TNO at Holst Centre will coordinate this Horizon-Europe-sponsored ECOTRON project, which was granted close to €5 million to explore how PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards) can be replaced by printed electronics. Corné Rentrop, project coordinator at Holst Centre: “PCBs are still the norm today. They are everywhere, in every electronic device we use on a daily basis. However, production of PCBs puts a lot of pressure on the environment, they are more expensive than printed electronics and mainly the metal parts in PCBs are recycled, making PCB production rather unsustainable. We aim to change that.”
Printed electronics versus PCBs
A growing desire for continuous data collection, real-time information and connectivity has resulted in an increased demand for electronics that are fully integrated in everyday objects. PCBs are the state of the art to create electronic functions, which is why the number of PCBs in the world is increasing rapidly, even though they are not environmentally friendly. Corné explains: “PCBs are processed on (non-recyclable), copper-plated fibre-reinforced epoxy (FR4) or polyimide. On these substrates, the electronic circuitry is created through chemical etching techniques, and soldering electronic components (chips, SMDs, LEDs) at high temperatures. Recycling and/or dismantling of PCBs is hardly done or occurs at very well-defined conditions, and is mainly limited to metal recovery. As the lifespan of such electronic products is declining, the environmental pressure rises exponentially. We know this can be done differently, even today. That is why we set up this project: to develop printed PCBs on recyclable materials, eventually reaching a circular production of electronics.”
A sustainable electronics production process
ECOTRON will explore the potential of printed electronics to reach a sustainable electronics production process. Corné explains how: “Flexible, organic and printed electronics are the preferred option to create sustainable electronics through low-energy, chemical-free and additive- manufacturing processes. The fact that in this printed-electronics process recyclable, bio-based and/or renewable materials can be used, makes it even ‘greener’. Setting up sustainable, ‘cradle-to-cradle’ value chains for printed electronics requires a multidisciplinary approach with respect to (bio-based) materials, (print) processes, device and module fabrication and dismantling techniques, and their (recycling) processes and regulations.”
In light of the ECOTRON project, Holst Centre will explore use-cases in smart packaging (with Janssen Chemie); consumer electronics (with Signify); medical applications (with BD) and wearable electronics (with Polar). Corné elaborates: “TNO, VTT, CEA, ITENE and POLIMI already develop circular, renewable, and even compostable printed-electronics products that can be implemented in these use-cases. The company Tecnicas Reunidas has the capability to completely design a recycling plant, creating recycling possibilities for circular manufacturing. These include novel dismantling techniques, the recovery of organic and bio-based materials, precious metals and reversible interconnects. This means that in the very near future, we will have reliable soldering techniques, self-healing and stable inks/interconnects in combination with encapsulation/lamination techniques, resulting in reliable, sustainable and recyclable electronic devices with printed electronics.”