Electronic devices typically have a very limited lifespan. We usually think that it is because of planned obsolescence, which is probably is in many cases. However, material choices could be at fault as well. Scientists at the University of Sydney have just discovered how ferroelectric materials are fatigued and how this problem could be remedied in the future.
Broken electronic devices become e-waste, which is a growing environmental problem. It would be good for everyone if electronics lasted longer. Image credit: Guinnog via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Everything we use gets used up eventually. This wear out and there is little to nothing we can do about it. And it is not all the manufacturer’s fault – there are actually some real material limitations. For example, ferroelectric materials are used in many devices, wear out due to repeated mechanical and electrical loading. Essentially, these materials that can be found in various memory chips, capacitors, actuators and sensors among other things, pretty much get fatigued, their functionality decreases over time and then they expire in a catastrophic failure.
Ferroelectric materials are used in most electronic devices. Whatever you’re reading this one has some ferroelectric materials. Therefore, it is important that the fatigue problem is solved so that we could reduce the e-waste we’re generating. Tens of millions of tonnes of spent electronics end up in the world’s landfills every year. Some of those devices are actually obsolete, others are just broken due to material failures. Electronic devices can be recycled in order to gather all the precious metals and reuse the plastic boards, but in many cases old electronics just end up piled in regular landfills.
Scientists now used electron microscopy to observe ferroelectric fatigue as it occurred. Dr Qianwei Huang, the study’s lead researcher, said: “Although it has long been known that ferroelectric fatigue can shorten the lifespan of electronic devices, how it occurs has previously not been well understood, due to a lack of suitable technology to observe it.” Scientists were able to see in real time how the degradation occurs, leading to defects that grow with every cycle. At 130 cycles defects were fairly minimal, but at 280 cycles they were already pretty significant. They believe that fatigue is accelerated by interfaces. In other words, a cleaner signal would help ferroelectric materials to survive user abuse for longer. However, in order to understand these processes better scientists will have to continue their research.
It would be really good if our electronics lasted at least a little bit longer. They are spent so quickly now that features do not become obsolete – just the machine stops working. If devices lasted longer, people would save money and we would damage the environment a little less. We will have to wait and see if this research will lead to improvements in ferroelectric materials.