Tag Archives: electronic waste

Chen Qiufan, garbage, and Chinese science fiction stories

Garbage has been dominating Canadian news headlines for a few weeks now. First, it was Canadian garbage in the Philippines and now it’s Canadian garbage in Malaysia. Interestingly, we’re also having problems with China, since December 2018, when we detained a top executive from Huawe, a China-based international telecommunicatons company, in accordance with an official request from the US government and, in accordance, with what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls the ‘rule of law’. All of this provides an interesting backdrop (for Canadians anyway) on the topic of China, garbage, and science fiction.

A May 16, 2019 article by Anjie Zheng for Fast Company explores some of the latest and greatest from China’s science fiction writing community,

Like any good millennial, I think about my smartphone, to the extent that I do at all, in terms of what it does for me. It lets me message friends, buy stuff quickly, and amass likes. I hardly ever think about what it actually is—a mass of copper wires, aluminum alloys, and lithium battery encased in glass—or where it goes when I upgrade.

Chen Qiufan wants us to think about that. His debut novel, Waste Tide, is set in a lightly fictionalized version of Guiyu, the world’s largest electronic waste disposal. First published in Chinese in 2013, the book was recently released in the U.S. with a very readable translation into English by Ken Liu.

Chen, who has been called “China’s William Gibson,” is part of a younger generation of sci-fi writers who have achieved international acclaim in recent years. Liu Cixin became the first Chinese to win the prestigious Hugo Award for his Three Body Problem in 2015. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Liu, became China’s first science-fiction blockbuster when it was released in 2018. It was the highest-grossing film in the fastest-growing film market in the world last year and was recently scooped up by Netflix.

Aynne Kokas in a March 13, 2019 article for the Washington Post describes how the hit film, The Wandering Earth, fits into an overall Chinese-led movie industry focused on the future and Hollywood-like, i. e. like US movie industry, domination,

“The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo, takes place in a future where the people of Earth must flee their sun as it swells into a red giant. Thousands of engines — the first of them constructed in Hangzhou, one of China’s tech hubs — propel the entire planet toward a new solar system, while everyone takes refuge from the cold in massive underground cities. On the surface, the only visible reminders of the past are markers of China’s might. The Shanghai Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower and a stadium for the Shanghai 2044 Olympics all thrust out of the ice, having apparently survived the journey’s tsunamis, deep freeze and cliff-collapsing earthquakes.

The movie is China’s first big-budget sci-fi epic, and its production was ambitious, involving some 7,000 workers and 10,000 specially-built props. Audience excitement was correspondingly huge: Nearly half a million people wrote reviews of the film on Chinese social network site Douban. Having earned over $600 million in domestic sales, “The Wandering Earth” marks a major achievement for the country’s film industry.

It is also a major achievement for the Chinese government.

Since opening up the country’s film market in 2001, the Chinese government has aspired to learn from Hollywood how to make commercially appealing films, as I detail in my book “Hollywood Made in China.” From initial private offerings for state media companies, to foreign investment in films, studios and theme parks, the government allowed outside capital and expertise to grow the domestic commercial film industry — but not at the expense of government oversight. This policy’s underlying aim was to expand China’s cultural clout and political influence.

Until recently, Hollywood films dominated the country’s growing box office. That finally changed in 2015, with the release of major local blockbusters “Monster Hunt” and “Lost in Hong Kong.” The proliferation of homegrown hits signaled that the Chinese box office profits no longer depend on Hollywood studio films — sending an important message to foreign trade negotiators and studios.

Kokas provides some insight into how the Chinese movie industry is designed to further the Chinese government’s vision of the future. As a Canadian, I don’t see that much difference between the US and China industry’s vision. Both tout themselves as the answer to everything, both target various geographic regions for the ‘bad guys’, and both tout their national moral superiority in their films. I suppose the same can be said for most countries’ film industries but both China and the US can back themselves with economic might.

Zheng’s article delves deeper into garbage, and Chen Qiufan’s science fiction while illuminating the process of changing a ‘good guy’ into a ‘bad guy’,

Chen, 37, grew up a few miles from the real Guiyu. Mountains of scrap electronics are shipped there every year from around the world. Thousands of human workers sort through the junk for whatever can be reduced to reusable precious metals. They strip wires and disassemble circuit boards, soaking them in acid baths for bits of copper, tin, platinum, and gold. Whatever can’t be processed is burned. The water in Guiyu has been so contaminated it is undrinkable; the air is toxic. The workers, migrants from poor rural areas in China, have an abnormally high rate of respiratory diseases and cancer.

For the decades China was revving its economic engine, authorities were content to turn a blind eye to the human costs of the recycling business. It was an economic win-win. For developed countries like the U.S., it’s cheaper to ship waste to places like China than trying to recycle it themselves. And these shipments create jobs and profits for the Chinese.

In recent years, however, steps have been taken to protect workers and the environment in China. …

Waste Tide highlights the danger of “throw-away culture,” says Chen, also known in English as Stanley Chan. When our personal electronics stop serving us, whether because they break or our lust for the newest specs get the better of us, we toss them. Hopefully we’re conscientious enough to bring them to local recyclers that claim they’ll dispose of them properly. But that’s likely the end of our engagement with the trash. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fiction, and science fiction in particular, is an apt medium for Chen to probe the consequences of this arrangement. “It’s not journalism,” he says. Instead, the story is an imaginative, action-packed tale of power imbalances, and the individual characters that think they’re doing good. Waste Tide culminates, expectedly, in an insurgency of the workers against their exploitative overlords.

Guiyu has been fictionalized in Waste Tide as “Silicon Isle.” (A homophone of the Chinese character “gui” translates to “Silicon,” and “yu” is an island). The waste hell is ruled by three ruthless family clans, dominated by the Luo clan. They treat workers as slaves and derisively call them “waste people.”

Technology in the near-future has literally become extensions of selves and only exacerbates class inequality. Prosthetic inner ears improve balance; prosthetic limbs respond to mental directives; helmets heighten natural senses. The rich “switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones.” Those with fewer means hack discarded prosthetics to get the same kick. When they’re no longer needed, synthetic body parts contaminated with blood and bodily fluids are added to the detritus.

At the center of the story is Mimi, a migrant worker who dreams of earning enough money to return home and live a quiet life. She strikes up a relationship with Kaizong, a Chinese-American college graduate trying to rediscover his roots. But the good times are short-lived. The boss of the Luo clan becomes convinced that Mimi holds the key to rousing his son from his coma and soon kidnaps the hapless girl.

For all the advanced science, there is a backwards superstition that animates Silicon Isle. [emphasis mine] The clan bosses subscribe to “a simple form of animism.” They pray to the wind and sea for ample supplies of waste. They sacrifice animals (and some humans) to bring them luck, and use local witches to exorcise evil spirits. Boss Luo has Mimi kidnapped and tortured in an effort to appease the gods in the hopes of waking up his comatose son. The torture of Mimi infects her with a mysterious disease that splits her consciousness. The waste people are enraged by her violation, which eventually sparks a war against the ruling clans. [emphasis mine]

A parallel narrative involves an American, Scott Brandle, who works for an environmental company. While in town trying to set up a recycling facility, he stumbles onto the truth about the virus that may have infected Mimi: a chemical weapon developed and used by the U.S. [emphasis mine] years earlier. Invented by a Japanese researcher [emphasis mine] working in the U.S., the drug is capable of causing mass hallucinations and terror. When Brandle learns that Mimi may have been infected with this virus, he wants a piece of her [emphasis mine] too, so that scientists back home can study its effects.

Despite portraying the future of China in a less-than-positive light, [emphasis mine] Waste Tide has not been banned–a common result for works that displease Beijing; instead, the book won China’s prestigious Nebula award for science fiction, and is about to be reprinted on the mainland. …

An interview with Chen (it’s worthwhile to read his take on what he’s doing) follows the plot description in this intriguing and what seems to be a sometimes disingenuous article.

The animism and the war against the ruling class? It reminds me a little of the tales told about old Chine and Mao’s campaign to overthrow the ruling classes who had kept control of the proletariat, in part, by encouraging ‘superstitious religious belief’.

As far as I’m concerned the interpretation can go either or both ways: a critique of the current government’s policies and where they might lead in the future and/or a reference back to the glorious rising of China’s communist government. Good fiction always contains ambiguity; it’s what fuels courses in literature.

Also, the bad guys are from the US and Japan, countries which have long been allied with each other and with which China has some serious conflicts.

Interesting, non? And, it’s not that different from what you’ll see in US (or any other country’s for that matter) science fiction wiring and movies, except that the heroes are Chinese.

Getting back to the garbage in the Philippines, there are 69 containers on their way back to Canada as of May 30, 2019. As for why all this furor about Canadian garbage in the Philippines and Malaysia, it’s hard to believe that Canada is the only sinner. Of course, we are in China’s bad books due to the Huawei executive’s detention here (she is living in her home in Vancouver and goes out and about as she wishes, albeit under surveillance).

Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if indirect pressure is being exerted by China or if the Philippines and Malaysia have been incentivized in some way by China. The timing has certainly been interesting.

Political speculation aside, it’s probably a good thing that countries are refusing to take our garbage. As I’m sure more than one environmentalist would be happy to point out, it’s about time we took care of our own mess.

Gamechanging electronics with new ultrafast, flexible, and transparent electronics

There are two news bits about game-changing electronics, one from the UK and the other from the US.

United Kingdom (UK)

An April 3, 2017 news item on Azonano announces the possibility of a future golden age of electronics courtesy of the University of Exeter,

Engineering experts from the University of Exeter have come up with a breakthrough way to create the smallest, quickest, highest-capacity memories for transparent and flexible applications that could lead to a future golden age of electronics.

A March 31, 2017 University of Exeter press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Engineering experts from the University of Exeter have developed innovative new memory using a hybrid of graphene oxide and titanium oxide. Their devices are low cost and eco-friendly to produce, are also perfectly suited for use in flexible electronic devices such as ‘bendable’ mobile phone, computer and television screens, and even ‘intelligent’ clothing.

Crucially, these devices may also have the potential to offer a cheaper and more adaptable alternative to ‘flash memory’, which is currently used in many common devices such as memory cards, graphics cards and USB computer drives.

The research team insist that these innovative new devices have the potential to revolutionise not only how data is stored, but also take flexible electronics to a new age in terms of speed, efficiency and power.

Professor David Wright, an Electronic Engineering expert from the University of Exeter and lead author of the paper said: “Using graphene oxide to produce memory devices has been reported before, but they were typically very large, slow, and aimed at the ‘cheap and cheerful’ end of the electronics goods market.

“Our hybrid graphene oxide-titanium oxide memory is, in contrast, just 50 nanometres long and 8 nanometres thick and can be written to and read from in less than five nanoseconds – with one nanometre being one billionth of a metre and one nanosecond a billionth of a second.”

Professor Craciun, a co-author of the work, added: “Being able to improve data storage is the backbone of tomorrow’s knowledge economy, as well as industry on a global scale. Our work offers the opportunity to completely transform graphene-oxide memory technology, and the potential and possibilities it offers.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Multilevel Ultrafast Flexible Nanoscale Nonvolatile Hybrid Graphene Oxide–Titanium Oxide Memories by V. Karthik Nagareddy, Matthew D. Barnes, Federico Zipoli, Khue T. Lai, Arseny M. Alexeev, Monica Felicia Craciun, and C. David Wright. ACS Nano, 2017, 11 (3), pp 3010–3021 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b08668 Publication Date (Web): February 21, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

United States (US)

Researchers from Stanford University have developed flexible, biodegradable electronics.

A newly developed flexible, biodegradable semiconductor developed by Stanford engineers shown on a human hair. (Image credit: Bao lab)

A human hair? That’s amazing and this May 3, 2017 news item on Nanowerk reveals more,

As electronics become increasingly pervasive in our lives – from smart phones to wearable sensors – so too does the ever rising amount of electronic waste they create. A United Nations Environment Program report found that almost 50 million tons of electronic waste were thrown out in 2017–more than 20 percent higher than waste in 2015.

Troubled by this mounting waste, Stanford engineer Zhenan Bao and her team are rethinking electronics. “In my group, we have been trying to mimic the function of human skin to think about how to develop future electronic devices,” Bao said. She described how skin is stretchable, self-healable and also biodegradable – an attractive list of characteristics for electronics. “We have achieved the first two [flexible and self-healing], so the biodegradability was something we wanted to tackle.”

The team created a flexible electronic device that can easily degrade just by adding a weak acid like vinegar. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (“Biocompatible and totally disintegrable semiconducting polymer for ultrathin and ultralightweight transient electronics”).

“This is the first example of a semiconductive polymer that can decompose,” said lead author Ting Lei, a postdoctoral fellow working with Bao.

A May 1, 2017 Stanford University news release by Sarah Derouin, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In addition to the polymer – essentially a flexible, conductive plastic – the team developed a degradable electronic circuit and a new biodegradable substrate material for mounting the electrical components. This substrate supports the electrical components, flexing and molding to rough and smooth surfaces alike. When the electronic device is no longer needed, the whole thing can biodegrade into nontoxic components.

Biodegradable bits

Bao, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering, had previously created a stretchable electrode modeled on human skin. That material could bend and twist in a way that could allow it to interface with the skin or brain, but it couldn’t degrade. That limited its application for implantable devices and – important to Bao – contributed to waste.

Flexible, biodegradable semiconductor on an avacado

The flexible semiconductor can adhere to smooth or rough surfaces and biodegrade to nontoxic products. (Image credit: Bao lab)

Bao said that creating a robust material that is both a good electrical conductor and biodegradable was a challenge, considering traditional polymer chemistry. “We have been trying to think how we can achieve both great electronic property but also have the biodegradability,” Bao said.

Eventually, the team found that by tweaking the chemical structure of the flexible material it would break apart under mild stressors. “We came up with an idea of making these molecules using a special type of chemical linkage that can retain the ability for the electron to smoothly transport along the molecule,” Bao said. “But also this chemical bond is sensitive to weak acid – even weaker than pure vinegar.” The result was a material that could carry an electronic signal but break down without requiring extreme measures.

In addition to the biodegradable polymer, the team developed a new type of electrical component and a substrate material that attaches to the entire electronic component. Electronic components are usually made of gold. But for this device, the researchers crafted components from iron. Bao noted that iron is a very environmentally friendly product and is nontoxic to humans.

The researchers created the substrate, which carries the electronic circuit and the polymer, from cellulose. Cellulose is the same substance that makes up paper. But unlike paper, the team altered cellulose fibers so the “paper” is transparent and flexible, while still breaking down easily. The thin film substrate allows the electronics to be worn on the skin or even implanted inside the body.

From implants to plants

The combination of a biodegradable conductive polymer and substrate makes the electronic device useful in a plethora of settings – from wearable electronics to large-scale environmental surveys with sensor dusts.

“We envision these soft patches that are very thin and conformable to the skin that can measure blood pressure, glucose value, sweat content,” Bao said. A person could wear a specifically designed patch for a day or week, then download the data. According to Bao, this short-term use of disposable electronics seems a perfect fit for a degradable, flexible design.

And it’s not just for skin surveys: the biodegradable substrate, polymers and iron electrodes make the entire component compatible with insertion into the human body. The polymer breaks down to product concentrations much lower than the published acceptable levels found in drinking water. Although the polymer was found to be biocompatible, Bao said that more studies would need to be done before implants are a regular occurrence.

Biodegradable electronics have the potential to go far beyond collecting heart disease and glucose data. These components could be used in places where surveys cover large areas in remote locations. Lei described a research scenario where biodegradable electronics are dropped by airplane over a forest to survey the landscape. “It’s a very large area and very hard for people to spread the sensors,” he said. “Also, if you spread the sensors, it’s very hard to gather them back. You don’t want to contaminate the environment so we need something that can be decomposed.” Instead of plastic littering the forest floor, the sensors would biodegrade away.

As the number of electronics increase, biodegradability will become more important. Lei is excited by their advancements and wants to keep improving performance of biodegradable electronics. “We currently have computers and cell phones and we generate millions and billions of cell phones, and it’s hard to decompose,” he said. “We hope we can develop some materials that can be decomposed so there is less waste.”

Other authors on the study include Ming Guan, Jia Liu, Hung-Cheng Lin, Raphael Pfattner, Leo Shaw, Allister McGuire, and Jeffrey Tok of Stanford University; Tsung-Ching Huang of Hewlett Packard Enterprise; and Lei-Lai Shao and Kwang-Ting Cheng of University of California, Santa Barbara.

The research was funded by the Air Force Office for Scientific Research; BASF; Marie Curie Cofund; Beatriu de Pinós fellowship; and the Kodak Graduate Fellowship.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the team’s latest paper,

Biocompatible and totally disintegrable semiconducting polymer for ultrathin and ultralightweight transient electronics by Ting Lei, Ming Guan, Jia Liu, Hung-Cheng Lin, Raphael Pfattner, Leo Shaw, Allister F. McGuire, Tsung-Ching Huang, Leilai Shao, Kwang-Ting Cheng, Jeffrey B.-H. Tok, and Zhenan Bao. PNAS 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1701478114 published ahead of print May 1, 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

The mention of cellulose in the second item piqued my interest so I checked to see if they’d used nanocellulose. No, they did not. Microcrystalline cellulose powder was used to constitute a cellulose film but they found a way to render this film at the nanoscale. From the Stanford paper (Note: Links have been removed),

… Moreover, cellulose films have been previously used as biodegradable substrates in electronics (28⇓–30). However, these cellulose films are typically made with thicknesses well over 10 μm and thus cannot be used to fabricate ultrathin electronics with substrate thicknesses below 1–2 μm (7, 18, 19). To the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports on ultrathin (1–2 μm) biodegradable substrates for electronics. Thus, to realize them, we subsequently developed a method described herein to obtain ultrathin (800 nm) cellulose films (Fig. 1B and SI Appendix, Fig. S8). First, microcrystalline cellulose powders were dissolved in LiCl/N,N-dimethylacetamide (DMAc) and reacted with hexamethyldisilazane (HMDS) (31, 32), providing trimethylsilyl-functionalized cellulose (TMSC) (Fig. 1B). To fabricate films or devices, TMSC in chlorobenzene (CB) (70 mg/mL) was spin-coated on a thin dextran sacrificial layer. The TMSC film was measured to be 1.2 μm. After hydrolyzing the film in 95% acetic acid vapor for 2 h, the trimethylsilyl groups were removed, giving a 400-nm-thick cellulose film. The film thickness significantly decreased to one-third of the original film thickness, largely due to the removal of the bulky trimethylsilyl groups. The hydrolyzed cellulose film is insoluble in most organic solvents, for example, toluene, THF, chloroform, CB, and water. Thus, we can sequentially repeat the above steps to obtain an 800-nm-thick film, which is robust enough for further device fabrication and peel-off. By soaking the device in water, the dextran layer is dissolved, starting from the edges of the device to the center. This process ultimately releases the ultrathin substrate and leaves it floating on water surface (Fig. 3A, Inset).

Finally, I don’t have any grand thoughts; it’s just interesting to see different approaches to flexible electronics.