Team:Yale/Our Project/Applications


iGEM Yale

applications: manufacturing

Electronics Manufacturing and the Environment

The application of biology to electronic manufacturing might seem unintuitive at first. After all, why bother with biology at all when we are constantly improving the traditional manufacturing and fabrication processes we have been using to build smaller and faster devices, chips, and computers?

Unfortunately, while the manufacturing processes that we’ve been using for decades have been successful at pushing the limits of silicon-based technology, they have been completely lacking in another, increasingly important respect: environmental friendliness. Today, electronics manufacturing produces tons of byproducts that put the environment at risk. For example, a 1/8-inch silicon wafer produces approximately 4000 gallons of wastewater, 27 pounds of chemicals, and 29 cubic feet of hazardous gases- imagine how much that waste compounds when you consider the sheer volume of silicon being produced to prop up the tech industry. As a result, Silicon Valley has become as much a home for toxic waste sites as it is for innovation. Manufacturing outsourced to overseas sites in China and India has created massive scrap yards of electronic waste that are hazardous both to the environment and the people who have to work in them.

Not only does electronics manufacturing create many harmful byproducts, but it also puts tremendous strain on resources that we continue to take for granted despite their scarcity. The semiconductor industry is notorious for requiring vast amounts of energy to fuel its activities- currently, a six-inch wafer semiconductor production facility uses 240,000 KWH of electricity and 2 million gallons of water per day. Clearly, we need to find ways to reduce these demands. Technology needs to not only be innovative, but it also needs to be sustainable.

Sustainable Manufacturing Through Synthetic Biology

Luckily, there already exists technology that is full of potential and is already attuned to the environment- biology. Our project aims to use bacteria to help make electronic manufacturing more cost efficient and environmentally friendly.

One of the reasons why biology could work so well for manufacturing processes is because biology is inherently energy efficient. Little microorganisms like bacteria excel at doing complicated tasks using very little. For example, consider flagella, the simple motors that propel bacteria like Salmonella and E. Coli around. Flagella are capable of rotating at 20,000 rpm on an energy consumption of only 10-16W and an energy conversion efficiency of nearly 100%. Compare that to a car engine, which rarely break 25% efficiency. Cars and other mechanical parts, such as those used in electronic manufacturing, require the operation of many macroscopic parts. As a result, they must convert energy to drive many degrees of freedom, inevitably leading to inefficiency. On the other hand, bacteria can convert little energy packets of ATP directly to the motion of their microscopic motors, allowing for little energy loss. Nature is full of microscopic engineering marvels that we can use to our advantage. Our bacterial-driven circuit deposition process will not rely on an extensive mechanical apparatus like current processes do- rather, it will be driven by the energy-efficient biological processes of gene expression and bacterial motion. Because it will be done in biological conditions, we will also be able to forego the massive amounts of waste in the form of wastewater and hazardous chemicals and gases. By harnessing the power of bacteria, we can make even the simple process of laying down a conducting wire more environmentally friendly.

We don’t need to completely revolutionize the electronics manufacturing industry and replace each and every mechanical part with a biological substitute. That would not only be incredibly difficult, but would also likely be unable to meet our manufacturing needs. Bacteria are good at doing a lot, but they cannot achieve much of the precision we need for electronics. However, there are certainly areas and processes where synthetic biology can play a major role and help reduce environmental demands. By identifying particular ways we can apply synthetic biology to electronics manufacturing, we can potentially greatly reduce costs and environmental strain. We hope that our project will be a first step in this direction.