Grasp the nettle! Yes, but which one?!

air air pollution climate change dawn

Media coverage of climate change is ramping-up in the UK ahead of the COP26 conference in November, prompting our government to start announcing targets – in this case a pledge to cut GHG emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

Of course, the great thing about targets set two or three electoral cycles into the future is that the person(s) who announces them isn’t necessarily the person who has to live with the consequences of their implementation (or non-implementation). They will instead bask in the rosy glow of the announcement, content in the knowledge that they probably won’t need to make any difficult decisions that would risk their ‘glorious’ legacies.

Difficult decisions, however, will need to be made. For anyone with an interest in the natural world (which should be all of us, co-inhabitants on a single shared planet), climate change and the catastrophic degradation of the entire global environment are a cause for simultaneous depression and enragement. As a society we seem to be stuck in the ‘have our cake and eat it’ mode: no need to change our behaviours as we ferry our recycling to the bottle bank in our electric cars.

Is this sustainable? It seems unlikely to me, but that’s an opinion based on an imperfect understanding of the systems in play and the balances that need to be achieved. Targets are great – but there is little evidence that our government is capable of making meaningful change to ensure that they are delivered, let alone help society to transform itself and put it in a sustainable path.

The low-hanging fruits have been picked and consumed long ago, and progress in many areas has stalled over the past decade: whether this is on GHG reductions, recycling rates, air, water and soil quality. It seems highly likely that our patterns of behaviour and (particularly) consumption will therefore need to change for transitions to sustainability to happen. This could require a re-set of our entire economic and social structure.

How relevant are ‘sustainable’ lifestyles to those who rely on foodbanks for their nutrition, or those working zero hours contracts to support their families, or those in badly insulated, inefficient housing? I would argue that we can’t hope to address the climate crisis without also addressing wider socio-economic crises: systemic change is required at all levels.

It’s not a case of either-or; we really need to get a grip ‘on the whole’ thing at once. Electoral suicide for whichever party chooses to do it, but kicking the can down the road is no longer an option.

Written by Dr David Thompkins, Deputy Head of Strategy at CRES

Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production (Part 3) – Why does EVERY electronic have slow testing?

macro shot of water drops on leaf

If you didn’t catch the previous parts of this series on what electronic tests are and how they relate to sustainability, you can find the first part here! (No really, otherwise you’ll be very confused if you read this article otherwise 😁).

To briefly summarise: improved technology is the key to sustainability–from energy-efficient LEDs to environmentally-friendly batteries! But many tests are needed to improve technology and they look for complicated ‘failure modes’ (the events that lead to electronics breaking).

Given all these unique types of tests, why did I claim up above that ‘EVERY’ electronic has slow testing? Well, ‘EVERY’ electronic from tiny batteries to giant power cables has two important (but slow) types of tests: accelerated lifetime testing and burn-in testing. As I explained in the first article, these tests are often done by manipulating the exact same variables: temperature, humidity, current, and/or voltage higher and performance over time.

To make it less theoretical, I’ll talk about lifetime testing.

Let’s say you’re a brilliant, laser in a LiDAR sensors that many automated electric vehicles rely on to enable cleaner transportation. You are about to be tested to see if you work! You will be subjected to a 75°C temperature (with all your other laser friends) and see how long it takes you to break. Here’s what I’d see:

Figure 1 Lasers’ performance over time under testing conditions. (Adapted from Lawrence A. Johnson, ILX Lightwave, 2006)

This is a curve like many others in electronics testing. It shows how variable X increases and/or decreases as the time variable increases and a device ages. Basically, as you shine longer, you age more and get tired. You need more ‘fuel’ (i.e., current) to keep you going. Eventually, you’ll need so much ‘fuel’ that you just won’t meet the user’s laser shining needs (and these needs can be important to the user, and can be detrimental from an environmental, economic and social perspective)! Even though, from a technical perspective, you may still be functional you may not offer the desired qualities to the end-user.

Different lasers, have different performance. As shown in Figure 1 lasers indicated with a maroon, purple, and pink colours have a 1000+ hours performance, and it is uncertain as to how long it’ll take for their fuel needs to increase considerably. The Arrhenius equation is often used to figure out what the laser lifetime would be at regular temperatures, given what we know about their lifetime at high temperatures. Warning… CHEMISTRY ahead. Do you remember this monstrosity from high school???

This is the Arrhenius Equation, and if you haven’t seen it since your high school chemistry class, fear not! Here’s the oversimplified version:

  • k is how fast atoms move.
  • T is the temperature.
  • k is equal to a complicated mess that we don’t care about. We just need to know k (how fast atoms move) increases as T (temperature) increases.

This allows us to model how fast atoms move at different temperatures (among other things). And remember what I said in the second article in this series: The faster atoms move the faster electronics degrade. So, the Arrhenius equation can be used to model how long it will take for electronics to degrade at different temperatures: Life is inversely proportional to how fast atoms move (how naughty, and chaotic their life can become), which is complicated to calculate.

In fact, this is exactly why we go to such great lengths to add heat sinks or cooling systems to devices. Cool right? Based on chemistry, and a gallop of physics and math we can model how sustainable technologies like, electric vehicles, solar panels, wind mills, would last while being subjected to environmental conditions (e.g. radiation, heat, humidity and wind) for many years.

Now, what does laser Figure 1 tell us about lasers’ performance before the 100 hours pass? That’s where the burn-in testing happens (e.g. every laser is run for 100 hours to find any defects). The issue is that many failure modes for electronics happen ONLY in that first little while of testing (it’s like you only get chickenpox once— usually when you’re young). But for lasers, it’s more like the atoms in the crystal structure ‘dislocate/diffuse’ to the wrong places when they’re young. The problem with that is that it’s pretty hard to predict all those specific one-time failure modes. Burn-in testing is hard to extrapolate which makes it even harder to prevent potential lower quality electronics to be placed on the market.

EVERY product needs lifetime testing and EVERY unit of every product needs burn-in testing for sustainable electronics and electrical equipment to be placed on the market. Even though, there are considerable ‘costs’ (e.g. energy, carbon emissions, operational and maintenance costs) involved in testing millions of electronic and electrical equipment made at factory, these could be significantly lower than the ‘costs’ associated with electronics and electrical equipment that becomes easily obsolete, especially considering the fact that these become waste very quickly and are alarmingly mismanaged. An in-depth system-based sustainability assessment is needed to demonstrate the impacts involved!

By this point in the series, I hope you realise how important technology innovation and testing is for achieving sustainability in the long-term. With this in mind, I’ll finally wrap up the next (and last) part of this series by looking at solutions to all the major problems I’ve highlighted so far! 🛠️💪

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/

Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production (Part 2) – What (specifically) do electronics tests measure?

old gear wheel covered with rust

If you didn’t catch the first part of this series on what electronic tests are and how they relate to sustainability, you can find it here! To summarise: there are different types of electronics tests at different parts of the electronics’ life (e.g. initial design vs. end use). They help us improve technology faster. And improved technology is the key to sustainability–from energy-efficient LEDs to environmentally-friendly batteries!

If you’ve read the first article in this series, you might have noticed how a LOT of tests (for everything from hard drives to solar panels to lasers) involves heating them up. It’s one of the most common variables controlled in electronics testing. Why is that? Basically, modern electronics are made with very SPECIFIC chemistry. All the atoms have to be in just the right place (and the places have weird names, like ‘p-n junction’). At higher temperatures, atoms get ‘excited’ and move about more and more. Eventually, they get so ‘excited’ they move away from the places we want them to be. This ‘naughty’, uncontrolled behaviour causes electronics to break. Which is why temperature is an important variable in all tests, and why electronics have cooling fans, heat sinks, etc. in practical applications. 

🔑 FACT: for every 10° C increase in temperature, an electronic can break twice as fast.

Other common variables that can affect the lifetime of many types of electronics are the current and voltage they receive. Current is the flow of electrons, resistance slows down the flow, and voltage speeds up the flow.

A common analogy of voltage, resistance, and current on the internet. (Source: unknown)

Alongside these basic variables measured, there are some that are more specific to the electronic being measured. For instance, batteries measure a variable called self-discharge when they age, which is when a battery loses energy without being plugged in. Over time, this decreases the amount of energy the battery has stored. And this measure of aging is becoming more important with electric cars. You wouldn’t want to buy an electric car if you didn’t know how many years it would take before you’d have to buy a new battery. Right?

Behind all these variables is a complicated physics. It has to do with two key terms: failure modes (events that break an electronic); and failure mechanisms (the causes behind those events). Physics variables can measure when a failure mode occurs. For example, a power cable that transmits electricity underwater would undergo corrosion (failure mechanism). Eventually, there would be so much corrosion that the cable would snap (failure mode). And we would detect the cable snapping when current is no longer flowing through the wire (variable).

This underwater power cable has corroded metal. You can imagine how inconvenient this is to monitor. (Public Domain)

Though we can use current to monitor failure modes of power cables just like we can use it for laser diodes, there are VERY different failure modes for the two electronics. This is the in-depth explanation of something I mentioned in the first article; it’s REALLY hard to test electronics once they’re deployed in the field. For every electronic you want to test, you have to consider ALL the environmental conditions that could trigger ANY of the unique failure modes for that electronic. And you have to simulate the physics of the situation to understand when the failure mode might be triggered!

I hope you now see why electronics testing is a lot more complicated than it first seems. THIS is the complexity that delays electronics testing and slows down rapid innovation for future sustainable technology. In the next part of the series, I’ll describe the SPECIFIC parts of electronics testing which are slow (in case any of you sustainability innovators have ideas for how to speed up the development of green, new technology)!

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/

Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production …and they affect EVERY SINGLE device you can imagine.

It currently feels like the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘electronics’ just don’t go together. Every day, there’s a new news report about toxic materials in batteries, or the massive amount of e-waste generated and pollution associated with its mismanagement. Nonetheless, innovation in electronics technology is the KEY to many sustainable innovations: from energy-efficient LEDs to renewable energy from solar panels. And these could lead to future sustainability breakthroughs!

So, what can we do to ensure electronics are developed efficiently? Let’s take batteries. Batteries are needed for all sorts of sustainable innovations: from renewable energy storage to electric vehicles. Yet, their production is onerous process; it can take years from their design to their final acceptance and distribution to the market. Specifically, the manufacture and testing of the performance and safety of a new battery design can make up the longest part of R&D process as shown in Figure 1. So, it’s not that we don’t have better battery technology, it takes years to be released while it’s going through testing!

Most of the time taken to build a new battery is from R&D. Source: Alishba Imran, Voltx

As I’ll soon explain, electronics have testing issues at every step of their development (from the initial design to maintenance while in use).  As a result Incredibly important innovations are being slowed down by testing: solar panels for clean energy, LiDAR for autonomous vehicles, lasers for fibre-optic networks.

This article is the first of a series of four articles on these key questions:

  1. What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?
  2. What (specifically) do tests measure?
  3. Why is ‘EVERY’ electronic test slow?
  4. How can we speed up testing?

Question #1: What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?

Certain types of tests are performed in all electronic industries. One of the longest types of testing is reliability testing. I’ll summarise a few reliability tests throughout the device’s life: from designing an electronic to maintaining it when it’s in use. This is shown below:

Overview of the tests I’ll talk about in a product’s life (Source: Madhav Malhotra)

Reliability enhancement tests: These tests happen when electronics are still being designed. The goal is to find the maximum limits of stress (e.g. vibrations, heat, current) that will break a product design. Then, engineers can fix the most common reasons for failure. For example, hard drives (electronics that store data on older computers) have a VERY tiny ‘head’ that reads and stores data on a magnetic disc (details here). It can be as small as a flake of pepper and is suspended over a disc rotating at 130 km/h! Any vibrations can damage this ‘head.’ So engineers should concentrate on trying to design better products by making the head safer.

Engineers have to make this tiny part (as small as a pepper flake) survive for years (CC-BY-2.0)

Accelerated lifetime test: These tests carried out in simulated stressful environments (e.g., 85° C and/or 100% humidity) assess the performance of electronic products before they are placed on the market. Their purpose is to find the specifications to market the product (e.g. warranty and lifetime).

Burn-in / screening tests: These tests happen during the production process. Their purpose is to find units of a product that have manufacturing defects (e.g. cracks, wires not soldered tightly, exposure to contaminants). They do this by setting a ‘challenge’ for all units by forcing them to survive tough conditions for a short amount of time. The theory is that units with defects will degrade in this short amount of time, so they can be separated from functional devices.

Acceptance Test: These tests happen right before the electronics are installed for use. Their purpose is to make sure that products meet the standards they’re supposed to. This is more important for larger electronics (like a factory machine) than consumer electronics.

Maintenance/Field Testing: These tests happen after electronics are deployed on the field. Their purpose is to check electronics’ quality and remaining useful life. Remaining useful life is NOT the same as lifetime. Lifetime means: “My phone battery will last 3 years.” Remaining useful life means: “I’ve used my battery for a year and now it has 2 years left to last.”

Lifetime and remaining useful life are hard to predict. Why? Because the real world is messy! You don’t just have a nice simple lab with exactly 50° C of heat, no weather changes, and no humans dropping, throwing or crashing devices ’accidentally’. It’s hard to account for the probability of ANY of those issues happening sometime in the next year. That’s why startups exist just to predict the remaining useful life of important electronics (like electric car batteries).

Given all these steps, no wonder it’s complicated to figure out where these tests can be sped up! And amidst this complicated confusion, we still continue to see important innovations (like batteries) have slower development… whether that be for storing clean energy or just stopping your phone from dying.

In the next part of this series, I’ll dive deeper into understanding what electronics tests are SPECIFICALLY measuring. That’s the first step before finding possible approaches to speed up testing and start innovating faster!

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/

Escalating E-Waste Could Turn An Opportunity into A Threat

Waste electrical and electronic equipment, known as e-waste, is the fastest growing solid waste stream globally. This growth is driven by the increasing economic development, urbanization, industrialization and income on the one hand (Debnath et al., 2018), and the planned obsolescence and modernization that make existing technologies redundant and/or out of fashion on the other (Awasthi et al., 2019). The recent UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report reveals that in 2019 around 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated globally[1], of which only 17.4% (9.3 Mt) was formally collected and recycled. The report makes no explicit reference to the fate of the remaining 82.6% of e-waste. It suggests that this may be legally (for refurbishment and reuse, often under false pretense) and illegally exported to developing countries (Forti et al., 2020), with much of the e-waste being non-functional and irreparable ‘e-scrap’ (Hinchliffe et al., 2020).

The irreversible environmental, economic and social negative consequences of e-scrap management in developing countries are well documented in the global literature, as are the opportunities for the informal recycling sector (Awasthi et al., 2019, Hinchliffe et al., 2020). For example, informal workers that live in vulnerable, marginal conditions are highly dependent on the income they earn from the sale of valuable resources e.g. copper and gold and components, they extract from e-waste. This income contributes towards the improvement of their livelihoods, and poverty eradication (Hinchliffe et al., 2020). In addition, the repair and reuse of good quality refurbished equipment can provide an affordable source of ICT equipment to a high number of people giving them access to mobile phones and computer facilities at home, school and businesses. This in turn supports the breakdown of the global ‘digital divide’, creating opportunities for social and economic development.

But, the situation is not so straightforward. E-scrap contains hazardous substances such as lead, mercury or brominated flame-retardants that pose high environmental and health risks if not properly managed. Informal recycling practices are suboptimal and are often carried out under inappropriate working conditions, with devastating environmental, economic and human health impacts. Workers do not have the skills and/or access to environmentally sound technologies and personal protective equipment rendering the management of e-waste in developing countries extremely dangerous and unstainable. The health and environmental implications associated with such practices are mounting in urgency due to the expected increase in the production and shipment of e-waste (Hinchliffe et al., 2020).

Is the breakdown of digital divide and poverty reduction a justification for the increasing production and shipment of e-waste to developing countries in spite of the environmental degradation and health implications? Where is the silver lining to such practices, and how should action be prioritized to reduce the environmentally destructive practices associated with the e-waste management practices? With the global volume of e-waste expected to increase over the next years, a holistic approach must be urgently sought after to identify the right solutions, and avoid the risk of undermining efforts to promote sustainable development alongside the sustainable recovery of resources from e-waste. This requires a holistic understanding of the system, looking at the design, production, use, disposal and management of e-waste, and the balancing of multi-dimensional values that span the political, environmental, economic, social and technical domains (Iacovidou et al., 2017). Currently, much of the attention and discussions are focused on the political and economic spheres that seem to bear little (if any) positive impact in curbing the e-waste management problems. Developing countries are still the backyards of developed ones, serving corporations at the back of impoverished people that seek to improve their well-being. Unless action is taken, the deleterious effects of inappropriate production, use, disposal and management of e-waste will soon become a global threat to our natural, social and economic systems.

A systems based approach could play a key role in understanding the drivers and barriers of e-waste production-use-management system and identifying ways of recovering maximum value for e-waste, whilst inflicting the lowest possible environmental, economic, social and technical impacts (Iacovidou et al., 2017). As described in (Iacovidou et al., 2017), the geographical scale and context and the consideration and selection of values from different stakeholders (incl. consumers and their behavioral traits) and policy-makers perspectives is essential to creating a clear picture of the e-waste issues and enabling the development of an integrated e-waste management strategy centered around the 3R’s principle of reduce, reuse, recycle for recovering maximum value from the e-waste stream, whilst promoting circularity and sustainability (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Overview of the key elements involved in the development of an integrated e-waste management plan

Developing and implementing an integrated e-waste management plan requires data, a good understanding of the relevant ecological, economic, social/ behavioural, political, and organizational drivers, and the development of a supportive regulatory and political landscape to encourage change. To that end, a global multi-national collaboration between regulators and governments, and other stakeholders is needed to revise, reform and promote social security and development, environmental protection and conservation, and regulatory and economic reconstruction of the e-waste production-consumption-management system (Iacovidou et al., 2017). It also requires the development of skills and capacity building to improve product design upstream, and facilities for e-waste management downstream of the e-waste system. This could also involve the employment of new environmentally sound technologies, given that there is space for establishing and maintaining a well-functioning market for sustainable and second-hand electrical and electronic equipment, and recycled materials. This is imperative for averting future irreversible consequences, and ensuring the scientific knowledge sharing, behavioral change based on awareness raising campaigns and good communication techniques; essential ingredients in promoting a sustainable management of e-waste resources alongside efforts to achieve circularity and sustainable development (Awasthi et al., 2019).

[1] Continental contribution: Asia (24.9 Mt), Americas (13.1 Mt), Europe (12 Mt), Africa (2.9 Mt), and and Oceania (0.7 Mt)

References

AWASTHI, A. K., LI, J., KOH, L. & OGUNSEITAN, O. A. 2019. Circular economy and electronic waste. Nature Electronics, 2, 86-89.
DEBNATH, B., CHOWDHURY, R. & GHOSH, S. K. 2018. Sustainability of metal recovery from E-waste. Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, 12, 2.
FORTI, V., BALDE, C. P., KUEHR, R. & BEL, G. 2020. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. Bonn, Geneva and Rotterdam: United Nations University/United Nations Institute for Training and Research, International Telecommunication Union, and International Solid Waste Association.
HINCHLIFFE, D., GUNSILIUS, E., WAGNER, M., HEMKHAUS, M., BATTEIGER, A., RABBOW, E., RADULOVIC, V., CHENG, C., DE FAUTEREAU, B., OTT, D., AWASTHI, A. K. & SMITH, E. 2020. Case studies and approaches to building Partnerships between the informal and the formal sector for sustainable e-waste management. Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative.
IACOVIDOU, E., MILLWARD-HOPKINS, J., BUSCH, J., PURNELL, P., VELIS, C. A., HAHLADAKIS, J. N., ZWIRNER, O. & BROWN, A. 2017. A pathway to circular economy: Developing a conceptual framework for complex value assessment of resources recovered from waste. Journal of Cleaner Production, 168, 1279-1288.

Dr Eleni Iacovidou
Division of Environmental Sciences
College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences
Brunel University London,
Kingston Ln, London,
Uxbridge UB8 3PH, UK

Dr Abishek Kumar Awasthi
School of Environment,
Nanjing University,
Nanjing 210023, China

Sustainable Agricultural Waste Management: From a Holistic Approach to a Focus on Plastic Recycling

It is a sad, but a true fact, that waste is ubiquitous in the environment!  So what should we do about it? The message is sound and clear and comes from both inside and outside of the European Union, via the proposed and now widely known “waste hierarchy” (shown underneath). The pyramid mainly ranks the processes based on their ability to protect the environment and human health, alongside resource value recovery, with the tip of the pyramid presenting the most favorable option, and from there downwards we have options ranked from the most favorable to the least favorable one.

The waste generated in the agricultural sector is mostly of organic nature. According to the waste hierarchy organic waste should be recycled via composting (aerobic decomposition of organic matter), but environmental impact assessments have shown that other alternatives such as anaerobic digestion (where microorganisms decompose the organic matter in the absence of oxygen into biogas) can offer more benefits compared to composting even though it ranks lower in the waste hierarchy. This offers a fundamental insight; the waste hierarchy should not be followed blindly but used as a blueprint to identifying the right option for the management of waste following a holistic analysis of the environmental, economic, social and technical impacts as shown in the Table below. You can find out more here.

This becomes more evident when we look into the other types of waste materials generated in the agricultural sector, specifically plastics. Plastics or plastic-based materials are used in many different processes in the agricultural sector, such as: plastic films in low tunnels regulating the temperature and controlling other climatic conditions; mulch cover to retain humidity; plastic irrigation pipes that restrict the unnecessary use of water and/or nutrients; plastic reservoirs that can collect rain water; and plastic films used for silage storage protecting crops, just to name a few. Other plastic articles used in the agricultural sector include the boxes and plastic crates for crop collection-handling-transport, other irrigation system components (e.g. fittings and spray cones), tapes for keeping elevated the upper parts of the greenhouse plants, nets to darken the interior of the greenhouses or minimise the effects of hail.

All those plastic components and products serve a useful purpose, but once they reach the of their service life they become waste. The best option to manage these wastes is to retrieve them from the fields, sort them into flexible and rigid type and having them collected by a waste collection company that takes them to specialized facilities for treatment. Rigid plastics can go to sorting and reprocessing facilities where here they are sorted to different types (e.g. PET, HDPE, LDPE, PP) before being grinded, washed, decontaminated and turned into pellets. The secondary plastic materials generated via this treatment process can then be used again as recycled content in the manufacturing of new products i.e. bags, plastic lumbers and sidewalk pavers, a process widely known as downcycling, or cascading recycling process. In the case of films that are heavily contaminated and cannot be cleaned sufficiently, or other flexible plastic articles that cannot be reprocessed mechanically, the energy recovery process (following in order the recycling in the waste hierarchy) is a valuable alternative, recovering the calorific value of plastics.

All this sounds great right? But does this happen in reality? With only ca. 10% of agricultural plastics being currently recycled globally, it is safe to suggest that we have a long way ahead of us in moving towards a circular plastics economy in the agricultural sector. Most importantly, we need to revisit the waste hierarchy and begin our efforts to tackle agricultural waste management from the tip of the pyramid and move downwards according to the context and types of wastes generated. To that end a system of systems approach can help us understand the multi-faceted challenges that currently hamper progress in promoting sustainable circularity in the agricultural sector, and help us identify  which, and where changes are needed in the system to enable transformational change.

Dr. John N. Hahladakis
Chemical Engineer (M.Eng., double M.Sc., Ph.D.)
Asst. Professor
Center for Sustainable Development
Qatar University