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What Will Electronics Be Made Of? Silk and Snails and the Eggs of Quails

Materials scientists are coming up with ways to make circuits from biological materials

3 min read
A computer keyboard laying in the grass.
Photo: Konstantin Inozemtsev/Getty Images

The United Nations estimates that people throw away about 50 million metric tons of electronics every year. One way to lessen the problem, some scientists say, may be to use biological materials—including plant dyes and DNA—to build devices that are biodegradable and biocompatible.

“We have to be ashamed” of the amount of e-waste humanity produces, Mihai Irimia-Vladu told a symposium on organic bioelectronics at the December meeting of the Materials Research Society, in Boston. Irimia-Vladu, a materials scientist at Joanneum Research in Weiz, Austria, has used cellulose as a dielectric layer in an inverter circuit and shellac as a dielectric in organic field-effect transistors. Many other biological materials could be transformed into suitable dielectrics, he says, including aloe, silk, and egg whites. Beeswax and carnauba wax—derived from a species of palm tree—could make dielectrics that are also hydrophobic, which might be useful in some applications, Irimia-Vladu says.

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.


If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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