Putting fungi on your skin may sound like something from 1960s San Francisco, but it’s actually the latest innovation to make wearable technology more sustainable.
Researchers from Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, have made a new kind of biodegradable electronics they call MycelioTronics. And it has great potential to reduce the e-waste that plagues all types of hardware.
The sustainability challenge in wearable technology
In 2019 alone, 53.6 million tons (Mt) e-waste was generated – a figure that continues to rise. Addressing this is paramount to protecting the environment.
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Electronic circuits in computer chips are made of conductive metals embedded in a substrate material to insulate and keep them cool. However, these substrates are traditionally made from non-recycled materials, such as plastic, that end up in landfills.
The researchers have grown and processed mycelial skins of fungi as an alternative biodegradable substrate material.
The “skin” is based on a fungus that grows naturally on dead hardwoods in mild temperate climates. They have high thermal stability and a flexible shape, which allows soldering of electronic components and facilitates the manufacture of electronic sensor cards. In addition, they can withstand more than 2,000 bending cycles.
Greener batteries for the win
Mycelium can even be used in low-power batteries. The researchers found that mycelium batteries can power autonomous sensing devices, including a Bluetooth module and humidity and proximity sensor. This is an important step for sustainability.
Commercial lithium ion batteries usually use polyolefin polymer separators. This makes them not only expensive, but also difficult to recycle. Mycelium skin separators offer an environmentally friendly alternative. While batteries still contain some conventional non-degradable circuit components, the use of mycelium results in a high percentage of biodegradability as the mycelium components disintegrate easily in composting soil.
Academic R&D can translate into European commercial success
Besides making you feel less guilty about that drawer of discarded wearables, this research is also a great example of how science is solving real problems. Funded by an ERC Starting Grant and the Austrian Research Promotion Agency GmbH, the technology behind MycelioTronics could have an impact on startups across Europe.
Now that this research is in place, companies and curious minds can start using it in their future products.
The link between scientific progress and European startups is well documented, with companies such as: Polar night energy — sand battery makers — and gouach — who specialize in the eco-design of lithium ion batteries — building their hardware on a foundation of academic research.
With these recent mushroom-based advances, biodegradable mycelial skins could emerge as a sustainable alternative material class for a green electronic future and further boost sustainable batteries and electronics. That is a victory for sustainability in Europe and for the planet.