Recycling and ‘ReUSe’ing PCBs

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Modern high-tech electronics, such as printed circuit boards, are not usually synonymous with a green agenda and its thoughts of recycling.

There are many reasons for this disconnect.  Not least of which, this technology moves so fast it’s often not logistically practical to find uses for old electronics, when the industry has very probably moved on to develop better, smaller components.  Equally, it has proven difficult to recycle the electronics, because to do so usually necessitates deconstructing devices to get to the bits and pieces within.  And usually, you’ll want to conduct this procedure with a sledgehammer because your device had broken down.  That does not bode well for the health of the electronics within.

Here in the UK we have been leaders in the electronics industry… in fact the first computer with storable memory, the so-called “baby”, was developed in Manchester.  And if we can build them, then it follows we can also break them down, in a country also leading the way in recycling and reusing materials.  This is where the ReUSE project comes into its own.  ReUSe stands for “Reuseable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics” and this project concerns itself wholly with this very conundrum of recycling electronics.

I’m sure, even now, there is a drawer near you full of your old mobile phones.  You always tell yourself you’re going to do something with them and yet you never, quite, seem to get round to it.  And so there they stay, gathering dust… an evolving electronics graveyard.  At the other end of the spectrum (not the ZX Spectrum… that is positively prehistoric in electronic evolutionary terms) we have companies like Apple.  Every time Apple bring out an iPad 2 or and iPhone 5, by definition it renders previous incarnations of these devices somewhat obsolete.  Now consider, once again, your drawer of old phones only now writ large across the nation and we are dealing with a substantial amount of “electronic waste”.

So we have a problem.  Luckily, in the UK we also have the kind of innovative minds that like nothing better than tackling such problems headlong.   And we also love nothing better than an acronym.  Within ReUSe, therefore, is the NPL… the National Physical Laboratory… and, moving forwards, they might have come up with just such as ingenious solution – a printed circuit board that falls apart when dunked into warm water.

We know what you’re thinking: a what that does what when dunked into a what now?  Here at Hi5 we love our PCBs… the only thing we want to be dunking is digestives in our teas… but bare with us because it’s not as wantonly distructive as you may think.  These particular PCBs are built from “unzippable polymeric layers”.  These layers, like usual PCBs, can hold out against the normal heat stresses associated with electronic equipment, whether rigid boards, flexible or 3D structures.  Equally the components are mounted on the board function in the usual manner, and function in just the same way as usual PCBS.

However (you knew there would be a “however”, didn’t you?), when the use for the new style PCB is exhausted, the boards can then be immersed in hot water.  Only a few seconds later, the boards themselves come apart, so that the components can be scraped off, then used on other boards. Obviously the more components that can be salvaged the better so, as you’re into electronics, here come the numbers.  Normal contemporary boards contain about 2% of re-useable components.  These new boards?  90%.  And those are numbers that certainly do add up!