The green and organic electronics of the future

With demand for consumer electronics growing rapidly - but tempered by an urgent need to reduce our impact on the planet - scientists are looking at organic alternatives that have less impact on the environment. For example, the use of aloe vera gel in electronics is part of the wider search for more sustainable dielectric materials, which are predicted to be a significant future growth market by economic analysts. Dielectric materials are used in consumer electronics as insulators as they don't conduct electricity well. Traditional dielectric materials include plastic, glass, ceramic and oxides of various metals such as aluminium.

Research carried out at Universiti Sains Malaysia revealed that aloe vera gel can be used instead as an effective, natural dielectric layer in an organic version of a thin film transistor (FET). In consumer electronics, FETs are widely used in laptops, desktop computers, smartphone, tablets and high-resolution TVs. Based on hydrogenated amorphous silicon, FETs are the basis of the technology that creates the active matrix liquid crystal display screens that all of these gadgets feature.

Silicon is a non-renewable material and the environmental impact of producing it is significant. As silicon is not a mineral, the material used in consumer electronics, and the photovoltaics industry, is Silica dioxide, which is the basic constituent of common sand. Silicon is produced by heating sand along with carbon to around 2200°C. Alongside the significant amount of energy needed to produce these temperatures, there's the other issue to contend with, which has been widely reported in recent years: we're running out of sand.

The sand needed for use in the manufacture of these minerals and components is specifically the kind you find in river beds and on the sea bed. Over-mining of sand from these sources over the past two decades has disrupted marine life, caused flooding of urban areas, and beaches worldwide have shrunk by around 40 percent. New regulations intended to slow the mining and give marine environments a chance to recover have instead prompted a thriving black market in sand. An alternative is desperately needed and it's needed fast.

Aloe vera gel is a potential alternative to silicon with a significantly lower environmental impact. Processing temperatures are much lower at just 40°C, plus sourcing and processing of it is cheaper, easier, and more sustainable.

The materials science field of organic electronics is looking at many other options too, which will enable our technological society to continue to develop in a more sustainable way. A discovery made in January 2019 at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, is expected to drive this forward as the researchers found an easy way to double the efficiency of organic electronics.

With advances like this, organic electronics could soon be reality rather than a hope for the future.