When I first started contemplating the idea of discussing advancements in renewable technology, I figured, “Oh! I can discuss several in this post!” Such an optimist, am I. There is no way I can properly discuss this topic in one post because there are so many to present. Instead, I will do a series of posts and present one new technology each time.
Renewable technology and energy are some of the most important technologies to develop and invest in over the next few decades. Our planet is in crisis because of the non-renewable energy and materials industries and the emissions that are released into the atmosphere both indirectly and directly from those processes. One of the pivotal solutions to climate change is developing and implementing renewable “green” technology solutions for the average business/person and supplemented by renewable energy. Now, while there are a few widely known technologies like solar, wind, and hydro-electric power technologies, instead I wanted this series to showcase lesser-known advancements in other niche areas.
First topic is pulp energy. No, I don’t mean orange juice pulp power (though that would be interesting…). Rather, I am referring to paper pulp (cellulose). Our global cultures are increasingly becoming connected in the digital world every day, which means that so much of our daily lives are filled with electronics. But what happens to these electronics after they are dysfunctional or are replaced by newer versions when obsolete? E-waste (electronic waste) represents approximately 2% of the trash volume in US landfills, but the bigger concern is that this waste is toxic and represents 70% of the overall toxic waste volume. In addition, electronics use precious metals like gold and silver, which are finite resources. Additionally, electronics often contain structural parts that can be reused or recycled. And we just dump them in landfills!
But recent advancements by researchers at Georgia Tech’s Center for Organic Photonics and Electronics (COPE) and Renewable Bioproducts Institute have included paper-based (pulp) electronics. These include organic solar cells, organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), and organic field-effect transistors (OFETs). This technology uses cellulose-based substrates (cellulose nanocrystals) instead of the current day plastic ones, which can be dissolved in water solutions and allow the semiconducting materials and precious metals to be more easily separated and subsequently recycled. Less plastic also means less demand for petroleum extraction and manufacturing, which also helps mitigate global emissions. But the main benefit is that electronics can be more easily recycled and therefore stay out of landfills.
If recycling and reformation of the substrates becomes less costly in the manufacturing process than the petroleum alternative, it would likely increase the cost-efficiency of electronics manufacturing, and thus reduce the consumer purchase price. Specifically, the cellulose-based OLEDs may soon be more cost-effective than plastics and glass for large-sized visual display monitors. This could finally mean our home walls could become computer screens! Imagine you could wake up and feel like you are surrounded by a rainforest, but without the dangerous predators and insects!