Water-soluble circuit boards could revolutionize e-waste recycling

Things labeled “just add water” are usually highly-processed foods and novelty bath tub toys, but new research from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory may change all of that.

Working together with In2Tec and Gwent Electronic Materials, NPS has developed a 3D printable circuit board that dissolves when immersed in hot water.

The technology was created as part of the UK’s ReUSE (Reuseable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics) project which aims to increase the recyclability of electronic devices.

Although the circuit board is merely printed, it has been shown to withstand heat and other pressures of real life use. Yet, when the hypotheical device breaks down, disposing of the non-recyclable parts is as easy as adding water.

According to the NPL, researchers developed and tested a series of unzippable polymeric layers which, while withstanding prolonged thermal cycling and damp heat stressing, allow the assemblies to be easily separated at end-of-life into their constituent parts, after immersion in hot water. The project demonstrated a 90 percent recyclable inverter circuit for an electroluminescent lamp dissolving in a small amount of hot water.

While this application of 3D printing won’t make electronic devices more resilient or eaiser to repair, in fact, quite the contrary, it does bode well for the planet.

Electronics waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and traditional recycling methodologies aren’t capable of keeping up. According to the NPL, the water-soluble technology lends itself readily to rigid, flexible and 3D structures, which will enable the electronics industry to pursue new design philosophies – with the emphasis on using less materials and improving sustainability.

Beth Buczynski,EarthTechling