Story | 12/20/2022 12:53:15 | 8 min Read time

Green electric vehicles and lightning-speed 6G: How wood-based electronics could turn the industry upside down

Mark Smith

Freelance journalist

Facing challenges ranging from war to environmental disaster, the supply and production of electronics is facing a crisis. Far from complex chemicals or obscure minerals, something as ubiquitous as wood could lend a helping hand to the industry. These three examples show how.

It’s a tough time for the global supply of electronics. The main culprits are geopolitical turmoil, the industry’s environmental impact, and unsustainable manufacturing. After Russia invaded Ukraine, prices for palladium and nickel went through the roof. In addition to the widespread supply chain disruption, heavy metals and other toxins are finding their way into our rivers and oceans. The electronics sector itself accounts for 3.7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

When looking for solutions sometimes fate throws up something we don’t expect. Far from complex chemicals or obscure minerals, could something as ubiquitous as the wood in our forests be the answer?

1. Cellulose speeds up 6G

Imagine being able to connect your brain – your actual brain – to electronic devices. Do something as simple as switch TV channels with a thought or, something as complex as control a robotic arm. This is the ultimate promise of 6G: a wireless technology with speeds that are 8,000 times faster than existing 5G.

This nascent tech is still in development, but being able to bring it to life will require massive amounts of components. The pressures on the industry could throw a spanner in the works unless new, more bountiful materials are found. That’s where wood comes in. 

Experts at the University of Oulu in Finland are at the forefront of research in 6G – the next stage of evolution in cellular communication. Designed to operate at higher radio frequencies than existing 5G networks, they could provide significantly faster data transfer rates and enable more effective Internet of Things (IoT) communication.

Imagine being able to connect your actual brain to an electronic device. This is the ultimate promise of 6G.

“Right now is the time of ideas and experiments, and some of them quickly end up being part of industrial manufacturing. Our time is typical for people to be divided into doubters and believers in terms of new technology,” says Sami Myllymäki, Doctor of Engineering at the University of Oulu.

The team at Oulu is a team of believers. They’re looking at using wood-derived nanocellulose to develop printed electronics: electronics literally printed onto materials, like any text or image. They can be printed on a range of materials that are cheaper and more flexible than traditional ones, thus easier to mass produce. Usually, electronics are designed on silicon or other semiconductors.

“As a natural material, using nanocellulose instead of plastics would be a significant benefit to the environment. It’s easy to recycle, too, as it is water soluble. It is a light, strong material, and easily available,” Myllymäki says. Eventually, innovations like these enable nature to meet with technology:

“It's as if we make a living organism from wood material and it remains a permanent part of our environment,” Myllymäki concludes.

 

2. From wood chips to computer chips

Chips, those thin slivers of silicon, covered in billions of tiny switches. They’re in everything from cars to smartphones. Unfortunately, they also contain materials such plastic, that do not mix well with the environment. That means there’s a literal pile of old chips somewhere out there from disused electronics that are now defunct. In an ideal world, we’d make the bases of these chips from another substance, something natural which can be broken down more easily. Sound familiar?

A research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has created a biodegradable chip out of wood – or, well, the components of a computer chip from nanocellulose derived from wood. Their chips work just like an ordinary chip but without the usual plastics and other materials that can lead to environmental pollution.

Nanocellulose has been used as a support material for solar cells and other electronic devices in the past, but this is the first time it was used in high frequency radio circuits. Being biodegradable, the chips can be broken down by common fungus, which could solve the problem of piles of old electronics decomposing on landfills around the world. 

“In comparison to traditional ones, the new chip is cheaper and is expected to be more sustainable in terms of the natural resources that are being used for semiconductor industry,” says Zhenqiang "Jack" Ma, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

3. Powering electric vehicles with trees

With the demand among the public and governments alike for a move away from oil, there is a need for alternative forms of energy to power electric vehicles. The market for electric vehicles is blooming: Sales accounted for 5.6% of the total automobile market in the second quarter of this year, up from 2.7% on the same period last year.

A team composed from Brown University in Rhode Island and the University of Maryland are tapping into this need: the researchers have been working on wood-derived material for use in solid-state batteries. This new type of battery uses a solid electrolyte rather than a liquid like lithium-ion batteries, and it’s more powerful than its predecessors – which makes them especially useful for electric vehicles.

In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers were able to demonstrate a solid ion conductor that combines copper with cellulose nanofibrils – polymer tubes that are derived from wood. Despite being as thin as paper, the material has an ion conductivity that is between 10 and 100 times better than alternative polymer ion conductors.

Our time is typical for people to be divided into doubters and believers in terms of new technology.

“We’ve found out that wood-derived cellulose is a super ion conductor material, making it ideal for use in a new generation of solid state batteries,” says Liangbing Hu, Herbert Rabin Distinguished Professor at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Maryland.

Put simply, it means this material could in theory be used in super powerful batteries without increasing battery size or weight. This could have major benefits for manufacturing power-hungry machines and devices where weight and size are a factor, such as vehicles.

“There is an urgent need for super-ion-conducting, solid-state electrolyte for developing safe and fast-charging electric vehicles. Our work – and that of others working in the field – will be of great benefit to the community,” Hu says.

UPM’s wooden satellite awaits its launch: If something can handle space, It can handle pretty much anything

When wood was first used to create seafaring vessels, it would have been impossible to conceive of it forming the basis of craft that would one day fly high above the clouds. Turn the clock forward and this is exactly what UPM is doing with an actual, wood-based satellite.

Wood products aren’t just being used at the micro level for things like chips and batteries, but they’re also heading where no wood has gone before – space.

Arctic Astronautics, a Finnish space tech company, has developed a wood-based nano satellite called WISA Woodsat. The structure is made of UPM’s WISA Plywood. The current outlook is to launch a real satellite in 2023. It will fly at 550 kilometer orbit at a speed of 27 000 kilometers per hour, explains Ari Voutilainen, Director of stakeholder relations at UPM Plywood.

“As a material science company we do know quite a bit about wood and its characteristics in different environments,” Voutilainen begins.   

“We do have a hypothesis on some of the behaviour but nothing beats a long-term real world test. Space has many similar environmental conditions as the Earth’s surface but some of them are amplified. Heat and cold are okay, but UV and other radiation levels are much higher outside the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The satellite has been fully functional now for a year, but is currently waiting for space operation permits both from Finland and New Zealand, where it will be launched. A spacefaring wooden craft would have big implications for how consumers and industry think about wood in wider industrial use. If something can handle space, it can pretty much handle anything.

 

Author

Mark Smith

Mark Smith

Freelance journalist | Mark Smith is a freelance journalist and writer from England. He has written on business, technology and world affairs for organizations ranging from the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He is also the author of "The Entrepreneur's Guide to the Art of War".
 
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