Electronic waste is a huge environmental problem, causing harm to the planet and human health because of the toxic materials used. While this situation is unlikely to change in the near future, there has been research on using materials that biodegrade. More recently, scientists have demonstrated a new route to creating biodegradable electronics by using organic components in screen displays.

The research was carried out by professor Suchismita Guha and graduate student Soma Khanra at the University of Missouri in collaboration with a team from the Federal University of ABC in Brazil. Still in its conceptual stage, it shows the way to an organic route to light the screens of handheld devices.

At the center of the discovery are proteins called peptides. Peptide nanomaterials are 100 percent biodegradable and are seen by scientists as an exciting, unique possibility in a new generation of hybrid materials to build electronics that are part and parcel of modern life. They can self-assemble into nanostructures or nanotubes, and be used as the base for other materials.

The research team combined the peptides with a polymer that emits blue light to demonstrate that they could be used in displays. "By combining organic semiconductors with nanomaterials, we were able to create the blue light needed for a display," says Guha.

The team also discovered that using the peptide nanostructures required less of the light-emitting polymer to be used, resulting in a nanocomposite with almost 85 percent biodegradability.

Guha says that the team now needs to successfully demonstrate how it would work with red and green light-emitting polymers, which are necessary to light up electronic displays.

The study recently appeared in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces.