Wooden Chips? System Builders Ax Down Idea

In order to fight hazardous waste caused by disposed computer components, scientists recently designed a unique new product—wooden chips.

The idea of wooden chips, which was announced in a new paper published in Nature Communications, would utilize biodegradable wooden material cellulose nanofibril, instead of gallium arsenide, a hazardous material with power-handling capabilities found in many chips.

Over 140,000 computers and 400,000 phones are thrown away each day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so scientists who designed the chip want to make sure that the devices ending up in landfills aren't hazardous. But system builders remained lukewarm about the logistics behind bringing a wood chip to market.

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"Wooden chips are probably more expensive than standard components," said Todd Swank, senior director of product marketing at Equus Computer Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based system builder. "This seems great in theory, but you have to weigh the pros and cons of using that in a realistic environment. It's a matter of being able to bring that concept to market."

"The environment is a big part of the industry," Swank added. "There's definitely customers who are environmentally aware and insist on products that meet environmental laws in different states. Customers are concerned that the products shipped basically meet legal regulations about these environmental laws."

The new environmentally-friendly chip was fashioned by scientists the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products laboratory.

The chip also contains epoxy coating to overcome the potential challenge of the wood's thermal expansion and of surface smoothness.

While system builders weren't sure about the idea of wooden chips, they stressed that many customers are environmentally-conscious of various products.

"I love the idea of biodegradable tech products – where it makes sense," said Andrew Kretzer, director of marketing and sales at Bold Data Technology, a Fremont, Calif.-based system builder. "As an industry, we need to be committed to environmental stewardship and social responsibility. I think that customers would be interested in sensible biodegradable products – in fact, I believe that they crave eco-friendly solutions and, where appropriate, will embrace them."

Dominic Daninger, vice president of engineering at Burnsville, Minn.-based system builder Nor-Tech, said about 25 percent of the time the specifications his company bids on will contain some specs related to environmental issues.

"Customers are interested in environmentally friendly products, but we haven't seen any customers asking about this," he said. "We would want to know the ecosystem and applications surround the chips… We'd want to know how durable they are, what sort of platforms they are available on."

Many system builders also discussed the popularity of another eco-friendly measure that is widely utilized for computer products that have reached end-of-life--recycling programs.

Daninger said most of Nor-Tech's customers dispose of their electronics through commercial recycling companies.

"As long as whatever the electronics we sell are reliable, then the safer it is for the environment, the better," he said. "More often the specifications will prohibit heavy metals or other materials that have a proven issue with environment safety and health concerns."

Many system builders offer customers recycling program based on state laws that govern the recycling of electronics. One such company is Kent, Wash.-based Puget Systems, which securely wipes or destroys hard drives and safely recycles computers and keyboards.

Puget Systems has partnered with a licensed recycling company that promotes environmentally-friendly recycling through refining metals for other uses and properly disposing of chemicals and byproducts.

"Most all of our computers are so high end, that when our customers upgrade to a new PC, they have no shortage of willing people to donate their old PC to. We also maintain a recycling program here, whereby we provide a pre-paid shipping label to get their PC back to us. Some components are used to help those in need of PC hardware, or go to local schools," said Jon Bach, president of Puget Systems.

Bach stressed that recycling is a viable option for disposed products, while system builders may have issues with the viability of wooden chips.

"I'm all for green and sustainable manufacturing, but I would be concerned about a product that was specifically designed to fail," he said. "Many of our customers already use our computers much longer than the warranty period, and would have a problem with a product that would literally start falling apart. That said, if the bio-degradation process only started when the epoxy is removed, that would be interesting to me."