Could computer chips made out of wood make smartphones cheaper?

New, high-tech chips constructed out of wood may be coming to smartphones.

In a new paper published in Nature Communications, a group of scientists from the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced that they’d successfully built a semiconductor computer chip made almost entirely out of wood-based material.

The new chip replaces the bulky backbone of current chips — referred to as “the substrate” — with a wood-based nanomaterial, and could eventually make cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices more affordable.

“If commercializing the wooden chips, tremendous material cost will be saved,” lead researcher Zhengiang Ma said, according to IT World. “We actually reduced the use of semiconductor material by 99.9 percent.”

The substrate replacement material is called cellulose nanofibril, a common, wood-based substance used to make paper. After building the cellulose replacement, researchers coated it with epoxy, which waterproofs the chip and keeps it from expanding and contracting.

More importantly, the new chips could also reduce the growing environmental impact of smartphones and mobile devices. Currently, chips in phones, tablets, and computers contain non-biodegradable materials such gallium arsenide which can have harmful effects, particularly in large quantities.

Due to Americans appetite for new cellphones and other portable electronics — most Americans replaces their cell phone around every two years — the researchers said that their chip has the potential to dramatically reduce environmental pollution.

“Now the chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it,” Ma said. “They become as safe as fertilizer.”

Though optimistic about the outcome, Ma said that the chips are still a long way from the production line.

“Mass-producing current semiconductor chips is so cheap, and it may take time for the industry to adapt to our design,” Ma said, according to the University of Wisconsin. “But flexible electronics are the future, and we think we’re going to be well ahead of the curve.”

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Maxwell Tani is a reporter at Business Insider.

Image: Men are silhouetted against a video screen as they pose with smartphones. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic 

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