Will There Ever Be an Organic Smartphone?
Tough-as-steel tree fiber may have some unexpected uses.
Organic isn’t just a consumer trend, it’s a way for businesses to limit overhead and e-waste using degradable, reusable materials. Given the massive monetary incentive, it’s no surprise that the tech industry is looking for ways to replace hard-to-find minerals with organic materials in smart devices. That said, no company is aggressively pursuing the obvious endgame: building entirely organic devices.
So, let’s ask a very specific question. What would an organic smartphone look like?
There are four key pieces to consider: screens, batteries/power sources, electronics, and casings. And in each area, scientists and engineers are looking at new ways to develop organic components.
We’ve crossed the touchscreen rubicon so there is no way we’re going back to physically pushing buttons, but on iPhones and Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy, screens continue to be constructed with Gorilla Glass, made by Corning. It’s fine, scratch-resistant material, but is not biodegradable.
The solution, however, might not be a biodegradable screen, but a self-repairing screen. A team of UK scientists has developed a carbon-based screen capable of moving itself into holes and cracks like a liquid and forming over the gap the same way blood coagulates over wounds during the healing process. The idea here is to make phones heal.
Nearly all smartphones — and pretty much all devices with a rechargeable power source, use lithium ion batteries that are the opposite of sustainable. Solar power will probably be the way we get there, but what if we still wanted to retain a battery in case the sun explodes? Scientists are a few steps ahead on that one.
StoreDot, an Israeli startup in Tel Aviv, recently demonstrated how to charge a Galaxy 4S using a battery pack made from amino acids — the bio-organic substrates from which the proteins in your body are built. These “nano dots” are capable of holding a charge and releasing it as an electrical current. The best part: StoreDot showed how the Galaxy 4S can use nanodots to get fully juiced in barely 30 seconds.
If the company can find a way to make a battery pack that fits inside a phone, it could revolutionize not just how we power our phones, but also how we power wearables.
Transistors are the key to all electronic devices — if you don’t have a semiconductor device that can amplify and switch electrical signals and electronic power, your device simply won’t work. Until now, almost all transistors are made from silicon. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, so there’s not fear we will run out soon, but that doesn’t mean it degrades easily.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison think they have a solution: trees. A new paper details how to use cellulose nanofibrillated fiber (CNF) — derived from wood — to create a functional transistor. The team successfully tested it and found that it improved as well or better than conventional silicon-based transistors. They also found that it degrades in the wild with the help of fungi. The next step is getting them to work at microwave frequencies, where most mobile devices operate.
In the past, other researchers have looked at how to use proteins from human blood, milk, and mucus to develop transistors as well. So, your smartphone of the future might contain materials from your plants, or from yourself. Choose whatever doesn’t sound gross.
Casings are probably the toughest obstacle towards creating an organic device. Most smartphones these days are wrapped tight in aluminum alloy. In the past, some phone companies tried to go with bioplastic made from corn, which at first sounds amazing until you realize bioplastic needs to go through a special process to degrade naturally.
An alternative would be to look at the route outlined for transistors and find a way to make cellulose-based materials suitable to work as casings. Last year, German engineers showed off light-weight cellulose fibers they developed that proved to be stronger than steel, while being as thin as a strand of hair. If further developed, this kind of material has the potential to replace metals and plastics for all sorts of devices, while being fully biodegradable well after it’s worn out.