September 7, 2000

Computers to Be Recyclable

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In the 1960s and 1970s, computers were owned only by large companies and firms who could afford them. They were considered a huge investment meant to last for years. Now they sell like hotcakes and become obsolete as quickly as 18 months after they have been introduced on the market.

Creating better and better models of computers is bringing about the untimely end to slightly older models. In 1998 alone, more than 20 million computers became obsolete in America according to a study by the National Safety Council, but only 11 percent were recycled. At that rate, by 2005, about 55 million computers will be thrown in landfills.

“Electronics, including computers, are a small but fast-growing portion of the waste stream,” Gordon Hui, program analyst at the US EPA Office of Solid Waste, said. “Rapid changes in computer technology … are only exacerbating the problem.”

The computers that are left are contributing to the enormous national solid waste problem. Not only are computers clunky, but the cadmium, lead, mercury and chromium in them are toxic and can leak into the ground, spoiling our groundwater, or can be released into the atmosphere through incinerator ash or landfill leachate.

Researchers in the Materials Science department at the University began pursuing this developing problem about four years ago and have now found a solution.

They have developed a compound called Alpha-Terp, an epoxy which acts as a protective adhesive. At precisely 190 degrees Celsius (374 degrees Fahrenheit), the epoxy can remove the adhered components from the computer chip during recycling.

The most difficult step in developing an appropriate epoxy is that it has to be tough enough to form a seal to isolate components, but pliable enough to make disassembly easy.

Unfortunately, it is so difficult to remove computers’ original adhesives that an estimated 77 percent of printed wire circuit boards cannot be reused.

On August 22, materials scientists from Cornell and the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton presented their research at the 220th national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) at Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C.

John Jir-Shyr Chen, a graduate student of materials science in the College of Engineering, reported on his work titled “Reworkable Thermosets: Enabling Disassembly of Microelectronic Components” at this meeting.

Chen has been working on this topic for four years under the supervision of Cornell Prof. Christopher K. Ober of materials science and engineering, who first created Alpha-Terp. He has also worked under Prof. Mark D. Poliks, research associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Binghamton and a manager of materials development in IBM’s microelectronics division.

“Dr. Poliks acts as an industrial mentor to me as part of my Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) fellowship,” Chen said. “He has offered a different perspective to my research which has definitely had a large impact on the direction my research has gone.”

Dr. Shu Yang Ph.D ’99, a former member of Ober’s research group, aided Chen in the initial stages of this research. She expressed concern about the effects of this research on the environment.

“Our work has not only had an impact on the reduction in processing and recycling cost, but also resulted in cleaner air due to decreased emission of organic compounds,” Yang said. “This is a win-win result, which has both scientific and practical values. And this is a perfect example to link research and application together.”

Archived article by Ritu Gupta