NASA Invests in Innovative Concepts, Including Electronic-recycling Microbes

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently announced that 13 proposals had been selected for funding as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which “invests in transformative architectures through the development of pioneering technologies.” According to the press release, “NIAC Phase I awards are valued at approximately $100,000 for nine months, to support initial definition and analysis of their concepts. If these basic feasibility studies are successful, awardees can apply for Phase II awards, valued up to $500,000 for two additional years of concept development.” Read the full press release on the NASA web site.

Among the funded proposals is a concept entitled Urban bio-mining meets printable electronics: end-to-end at destination biological recycling and reprinting,” submitted by Lynn Rothschild, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The project description states:

“Space missions rely utterly on metallic components, from the spacecraft to electronics. Yet, metals add mass, and electronics have the additional problem of a limited lifespan. Thus, current mission architectures must compensate for replacement. In space, spent electronics are discarded; on earth, there is some recycling but current processes are toxic and environmentally hazardous. Imagine instead an end-to-end recycling of spent electronics at low mass, low cost, room temperature, and in a non-toxic manner. Here, we propose a solution that will not only enhance mission success by decreasing upmass and providing a fresh supply of electronics, but in addition has immediate applications to a serious environmental issue on the Earth. Spent electronics will be used as feedstock to make fresh electronic components, a process we will accomplish with so-called ‘urban biomining’ using synthetically enhanced microbes to bind metals with elemental specificity. To create new electronics, the microbes will be used as ‘bioink’ to print a new IC chip, using plasma jet electronics printing. The plasma jet electronics printing technology will have the potential to use martian atmospheric gas to print and to tailor the electronic and chemical properties of the materials. Our preliminary results have suggested that this process also serves as a purification step to enhance the proportion of metals in the ‘bioink’. The presence of electric field and plasma can ensure printing in microgravity environment while also providing material morphology and electronic structure tunabiity and thus optimization. Here we propose to increase the TRL level of the concept by engineering microbes to dissolve the siliceous matrix in the IC, extract copper from a mixture of metals, and use the microbes as feedstock to print interconnects using mars gas simulant. To assess the ability of this concept to influence mission architecture, we will do an analysis of the infrastructure required to execute this concept on Mars, and additional opportunities it could offer mission design from the biological and printing technologies. In addition, we will do an analysis of the impact of this technology for terrestrial applications addressing in particular environmental concerns and availability of metals.”

Note that “TRL” refers to “Technology Readiness Level,” a measure of the technological maturity of a concept, indicative of the degree to which it has developed beyond the initial faults and unforeseen problems that inevitably arise when something theoretical is brought into practice. NASA TRL definitions help characterize whether a concept is ready for use in space flight during missions or has been “flight proven” as part of successful missions.

Printable Electronics
Graphic depiction of printable electronics, from concept description on NASA web site.

Though the idea is geared toward making missions to Mars more practical in terms of the weight of materials needed to pack for missions and dealing with the lack of a local repair shop in the event of a device breakdown, the concept–if successful–could have obvious positive impacts on sustainable electronic product design and responsible management of the ever-growing stream of discarded electronics here on Earth. This could end up becoming one more example of how technology developed to enable space exploration could have benefits to humans in their everyday terrestrial lives. NASA has published an annual accounting of such technologies called “Spinoff” since 1976.

For more information on the NIAC program, visit https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/index.html. For more information on technological “spinoffs”  from space exploration which improve life on Earth, see the press release for the 2016 edition of Spinoff, and the official NASA Spinoff web site.

Reminder: Manuscripts for Special Edition of Challenges Due 12/31/15

challenges-logoManuscripts are still being accepted for the special issue of the journal Challenges, entitled “Electronic Waste–Impact, Policy and Green Design.” 

From the issue’s rationale:

“Electronics are at the heart of an economic system that has brought many out of poverty and enhanced quality of life. In Western society in particular, our livelihoods, health, safety, and well being are positively impacted by electronics. However, there is growing evidence that our disposal of electronics is causing irreparable damage to the planet and to human health, as well as fueling social conflict and violence.

While global demand for these modern gadgets is increasing, policy to handle the increased volumes of electronic waste has not kept pace. International policy governing safe transfer, disposal, reclamation, and reuse of electronic waste is nonexistent or woefully lacking. Where laws do exist about exporting and importing hazardous waste, they are routinely circumvented and enforcement is spotty at best. While European Union countries lead the way in responsible recycling of electronic and electrical devices under various EU directives, most industrialized nations do not have such policies. In the U.S., for example, most electronic waste is still discarded in landfills or ground up for scrap.

It is imperative that we consider how green design practices can address the growing electronic waste problem. This special issue is meant to do just that and spur discussions on how electronic products can become greener and more sustainable.”

If you are interested in submitting a paper for this special issue, please send a title and short abstract (about 100 words) to the Challenges Editorial Office at challenges@mdpi.com, indicating the special issue for which it is to be considered. If the proposal is considered appropriate for the issue, you will be asked to submit a full paper. Complete instructions for authors and an online submission form for the completed manuscripts are available on the Challenges web site at http://www.mdpi.com/journal/challenges/special_issues/electronic-waste#info. The deadline for manuscript submissions is December 31, 2015. Questions may be addressed to co-guest editor Joy Scrogum.

New on the SEI Website: Spring 2015

Check out the following updates and resources added this spring on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative web site. If you have any questions, or would like to make suggestions for additions to the SEI site, please contact Joy Scrogum. Don’t forget to subscribe to the SEI Blog and follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay current with sustainable electronics issues!

New “Lessons” Page:

We’ve added a “Lessons” page to the “Education” section of our site for interactive lessons on various sustainable electronics topics. Check out “The Secret Life of Electronics” to explore some of the environmental and social impacts of electronic products.

SEI Publications:

Teaching Sustainability with Electronics. January 2015.

Updates to Law & Policy pages:

A link to the controversial Executive Order 13693 (Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade) has been added to the U.S. Federal Legislation page. Effective March 19, 2015, this executive order is notable in its lack of any mention of the EPEAT registry tied to federal procurement preferences. For nearly a decade prior, 95% of electronics purchased by federal agencies were required to be EPEAT registered. The omission was met with criticism and concern from environmental and sustainability advocates, but the Green Electronics Council, which administers the EPEAT registry, has expressed confidence that federal agencies will continue to use the registry as a purchasing tool, since doing so is not precluded by the new executive order. UPDATE, 6/18/15: Implementation instructions for this Executive Order, dated June 10, 2015, make it clear that EPEAT is the only existing tool to achieve the electronic stewardship mandates of the order. This allays the fears of those who thought the omission of direct mention of EPEAT in the order would lead to weakening or failure as a tool for environmentally preferable purchasing. For more information, see the Resource Recycling article Federal government sticks with EPEAT after all.

A link to IL HB 1455 was added under “Pending State & Local Legislation” on the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. This bill has passed the state House and Senate and is awaiting the signature of Governor Bruce Rauner. Synopsis As Introduced: “Amends the Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act. Provides that a manufacturer may count the total weight of a cathode ray tube device, prior to processing, towards its goal under this Section if all recyclable components are removed from the device and the cathode ray tube glass is managed in a manner that complies with all Illinois Environmental Protection Agency regulations for handling, treatment, and disposition of cathode ray tubes. Provides that, for specified categories of electronic devices, each manufacturer shall recycle or reuse at least 80% (was at least 50%) of the total weight of the electronic devices that the manufacturer sold in that category in Illinois during the calendar year 2 years before the applicable program year. Provides that a registered recycler or a refurbisher of CEDs and EEDs for a manufacturer obligated to meet goals may not charge individual consumers or units of local government acting as collectors a fee to recycle or refurbish CEDs and EEDs, unless the recycler or refurbisher provides (i) a financial incentive, such as a coupon, that is of greater or equal value to the fee being charged or (ii) premium service, such as curbside collection, home pick-up, drop-off locations, or a similar methods of collection. Provides that, in program year 2015, and each year thereafter, if the total weight of CEDs and EEDs recycled or processed for reuse by the manufacturer is less than 100% of the manufacturer’s individual recycling or reuse goal set forth in a specified provision of the Act, the manufacturer shall pay a penalty equal to the product of (i) $0.70 per pound; multiplied by (ii) the difference between the manufacturer’s individual recycling or reuse goal and the total weight of CEDs and EEDs recycled or processed for reuse by the manufacturer during the program year. Effective immediately.”

A link to the text of the Minnesota bill HF 1412 was also added under “Pending State & Local Legislation” on the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. This bill, introduced by Rep. Frank Hornstein on March 4, 2015, would change the determination of e-scrap collection requirements for manufacturers. Currently, manufacturers fund the MN electronics recycling program with contributions based on volume of equipment sold in the state annually. According to the Product Stewardship Institute, the new bill would ‘change the state’s reuse and recycling goals every year in response to changing weights and quantities of electronic products sold and recycled. [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] will publish a new recycling goal each year based on the sum of the average weight of the electronic devices collected for recycling in the preceding two years.’ The bill additionally proposes to broaden the state’s electronics disposal ban, which currently only bans CRTs from landfills. If passed, the amended disposal ban would include products such as cellphones, video game consoles and computers and computer peripherals.

A few of the new items in the SEI Resource Compilations. (Items are added all the time, so check the web site often.):

Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones: The aim of this study is to explore the literature surrounding the environmental impact of mobile phones and the implications of moving from the current business model of selling, using and discarding phones to a product service system based upon a cloud service. The exploration of the impacts relating to this shift and subsequent change in scope is explored in relation to the life cycle profile of a typical smartphone.

MeterHero: MeterHero is a sustainability exchange where you can offset your water and energy use by purchasing savings from local homes, schools, and buildings. People who conserve earn income and help save the planet. The MeterHero dashboard allows users to track their water, electric and gas usage, and money earned by reducing usage.

Carbon Nanotubes in Electronics: Background and Discussion for Waste-Handling Strategies: Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are increasingly being used in electronics products. CNTs have unique chemical and nanotoxicological properties, which are potentially dangerous to public health and the environment. This report presents the most recent findings of CNTs’ toxicity and discusses aspects related to incineration, recycling and potential remediation strategies including chemical and biological remediation possibilities. Our analysis shows that recycling CNTs may be challenging given their physiochemical properties and that available strategies such as power-gasification methods, biological degradation and chemical degradation may need to be combined with pre-handling routines for hazardous materials. The discussion provides the background knowledge for legislative measures concerning specialized waste handling and recycling procedures/facilities for electronics products containing CNTs.

Precarious Promise: A Case Study of Engineered Carbon NanotubesIn just over two decades since the discovery of carbon nanotubes, technologies relying on engineered CNTs have developed at warp speed. Current and anticipated uses of engineered CNTs are numerous and diverse: sporting equipment, solar cells, wind turbines, disk drives, batteries, antifouling paints for boats, flame retardants, life-saving medical devices, drug delivery technologies, and many more. Some have suggested that every  feature of life as we know it is or will be impacted by the discovery and use of CNTs. Despite uncertainty about how these entirely new materials may affect living systems, CNTs have largely been a case of “forget precaution, get to production.” Concern for human health and the environment has been overwhelmed by the promise of profits and progress. Financial support for nanomaterial research and commercial development has vastly outpaced funding of environmental health and safety and sustainable design research on these materials. And with limited understanding of how these structures — small enough to penetrate cells — will interact with humans and other life forms, use of CNTs is proliferating with few systems in place to protect people or the environment. Warning signs have emerged, however. CNTs share important physical characteristics with ultrafine air pollution particles as well as with asbestos fibers — both recognized as seriously toxic. Mounting numbers of toxicological studies now demonstrate irreversible health effects in laboratory animals, but it is unclear whether similar effects have occurred in humans exposed at work or through environmental releases. The growing literature on toxic effects of CNTs also make clear that the environmental and human health impacts may vary radically, depending on specific chemical and physical characteristics of the engineered nanomaterial. While some CNTs appear to be highly hazardous, it remains possible that others may pose little threat. Is it possible to gain the benefits of CNTs with minimal risk by ensuring the use of the safest alternatives for a particular application?  (PDF Format; Length: 36 pages)