Atom scientist: ‘Trash is an analogue concept’

The advent of material digitisation techniques such as 3D printing could prove the key to unlocking circular economy acceleration, according to a leading scientist working in this field.

Professor Neil Gershenfeld heads up the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre for Bits & Atoms, where his laboratory is creating what he calls “molecular lego” – micro-electronic components that will enable smarter assembly and disassembly to be built into materials at the product design stage.

According to Gershenfeld, waste is an “analogue concept” and as such is diametrically opposed to the notion of a circular economy where materials can be built, taken apart and rebuilt time and time again.

“[With trash] you put it in a landfill, but it doesn’t contain information on what to do with it. The real research revolution now is in digitising the materials. We are learning how to put codes into the construction of material … what it means is you can disassemble technological materials and reassembly them,” he explained.

The pioneering work the professor and his team are carrying out could have massive implications for building more circular value chains within the electronics industry, particularly with the smartphone market.

“For micro-electronics, think of lego bricks. With a lego brick you don’t need a ruler to place it, the block has geometry, it corrects errors … and you don’t put lego in the trash, you take the bricks apart. The reason you can do this is the bricks contain information.

“So for e-waste where the research is going is we’re making a brick that’s a conductor, a brick that’s a semi-conductor, a brick that’s an insulator, and they’re very very tiny … the size of micro-electronic components,” Gershenfeld said, adding that his team was developing technology that could assemble these micro-electronic bricks then pull them apart and reassembly them.

The professor was keen to emphasise that the work was still very much in the pilot innovation stage, but that it could revolutionise how products are redesigned in the future.

“We won’t get there fast enough to transform the economy in the next few years … but as quickly as possible the goal is to make [circular economy realisation] much easier by putting more information in the materials, so the materials themselves tell you how to disassembly them,” he said.

Gershenfeld was talking at a waste debate held at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland last week.

Maxine Perella

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