Professor Receives Grant to Develop Electronic Devices Made Entirely of Paper

Binghamton University Professor Seokheun (Sean) Choi wants to build electronic devices made entirely of paper as a nontoxic, cost-effective and biodegradable alternative to silicon- and plastic-based components.

Imagine if you could build an electronic device made entirely of paper. A nontoxic, cost-effective and biodegradable alternative to silicon- and plastic-based components would be a game-changer for a planet quickly filling up with the “e-waste” of discarded gadgets and single-use sensors.

That’s the vision of Binghamton University Professor Seokheun (Sean) Choi. He’s worked for years creating better biobatteries that use bacteria or human sweat to generate energy. Some of those batteries have been paper-based, and now he hopes to apply that knowledge to circuit boards and related parts.

A new $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will fund development of what he calls integrated papertronics. The three-year award is his ninth federal grant since coming to Binghamton — seven from the NSF and two from the Office of Naval Research.

The primary goal is to print multilayered, high-performance circuit boards on paper using densely concentrated, highly conductive metallic wires, and to create flexible paper-based components that can be integrated into those papertronic systems. Choi said a fully paper-based project like this is a unique idea, and that’s what caught the NSF’s interest.

“All previous work with paper-based printed circuit boards had to use off-the-shelf electronic components,” said Choi, a faculty member in the Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “That doesn’t make any sense for fully paper-based electronics. We want to replace those components with paper-based capacitors, registers and transistors.”

Papertronics offers not just biodegradability but also flexibility.

Fueled by the Internet of Things — which use tiny sensors to connect — some tech experts predict that there will be more than 1 trillion electronic devices around the world by 2035. Current manufacturing methods would generate millions of tons of “e-waste” clogging up landfills and oceans.

Building on years of research, Choi believes he and his students at Binghamton’s Bioelectronics and Microsystems Lab can take papertronics to the next level.

“My long-term goal is to create a green and renewable electronic system, so in that sense this project is the next logical step,” he said. “The ideas and observations in my research group make us a leader in paper-based biobatteries and self-powered, paper-based biosensors. I’m going to integrate all my expertise, knowledge and experiences to create an entirely paper-based system.”

One challenge will be to figure out nontoxic materials that will do the job well without causing environmental problems later.

“With our previous work, we wanted to develop papertronic components — that was our focus, and we used toxic materials or whatever worked,” he said. “But now, I’d like to use biodegradable materials to create even the small components as well.”

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