HAZARDOUS WASTE: Electronic waste contains a lot of lead. A new discovery from NTNU could make this problem a thing of the past.
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Lead-free electronics

A new approach may get the lead out of consumer electronics.

It’s been said that the typical mobile phone contains roughly half of all elements found on the Periodic Table. One of the most problematic substances used in phones and other electronics is lead. But making lead-free electronics has proved problematic – until now. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have developed a method that enables the industrial production of a substance that can be used to replace lead in many electronic applications.

Lead to be phased out

Lead, or more precisely lead oxide, can cause both acute and chronic health and environmental problems. European regulators have decided that the use of lead in electronics must be phased out.

But finding a replacement for a lead-containing material called PZT, which is found in almost all electronics, has been an alchemist’s dream. Most researchers have failed to find a good enough alternative that provides the same functionality. As a result, the electronics industry has been exempt from the ban.

A material called KNN has long been considered a possible alternative, but finding a manufacturing method that provides both the right material properties and is industrially feasible has proved problematic. A group of researchers led by Tor Grande at NTNU’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering has solved both problems.

Lead everywhere

The most common leaded material in today’s electronics (PZT) generates an electrical voltage when exposed to pressure. It is used in “gadgets” where mechanical movement has to be transformed into an electrical signal, or vice versa.

You’ll find PZT in your mobile phone, your car, your computer – in short, everywhere there are sensors and displays. Ultrasound images would not be possible without these kinds of materials.

A ten-year long quest

Over the past ten years, there has been tremendous growth in research on lead-free alternatives. A type of material called alkali niobate, also known as KNN, is considered a likely successor.

However, KNN poses two main problems that have been difficult to resolve: one is finding a KNN variant that has the exact properties needed for electronics. The second is to develop a method for industrial production of the material.

NTNU researchers have developed an approach that is ready for patenting.

“I had a theory and some ideas, and I knew that there would be something exciting out of this, I just did not know exactly what,” says Tor Grande, who is the research project manager. Grande thinks it is very satisfying to create an environmentally friendly alternative to PZT.

Chemistry on a “grande” scale

Grande uses a kitchen analogy when he explains the trick behind the new method. Microscopic ingredients are baked, rolled out and cooked in thin ceramic sheets.

But the secret is the extremely precise structure of the ceramic sheet, which has a texture that helps transform mechanical pressure into electrical signals, and vice versa. This gives the sheet the exact same properties as PZT.

“The method we have developed kills two birds with one stone,” says Grande. “Not only can we adjust the process to create properties in the ceramic sheet that are precisely suited to different electronics – we can also scale up the process so that we can produce almost unlimited amounts of it.”

Green electronic products?

The team has submitted a patent application and is now working on verification and further development. They’re also deeply involved in the larger international research world, and hosted the 12th International Electroceramics Conference at NTNU in June 2010.

“If we succeed, it will be of great commercial interest,” Grande says. “I will be surprised if this product doesn’t take over a significant part of the market in ten years. Maybe this will help in the creation of green electronic products?”

Hege Tunstad