Smart buildings, e-waste, and printed sensors to monitor plant health in space or to finely control prosthetic arms: catch up on the monthly news from the field of printed electronics in our first digest of 2021 below.

The future’s buildings could have printed sensors everywhere!

Imagine your house had printed sensors built into the walls and floor that could detect water leaks, air quality and usage patterns. Well, it sounds like science fiction, but the buildings of the future may have all these functionalities thanks to… printed electronics! IDTechEx has analysed these technologies, markets and applications, and they have highlighted key innovations that will revolutionize facilities management: touch-sensitive walls to produce light and sound, pressure-sensitive floors for monitoring foot traffic in shops and hospitals, sensors to measure humidity and much more!

A glimpse into the e-waste problem

In 2019 alone, people discarded 53 million metric tons of electronic waste and only 14.4 % of it was collected and recycled. However, while e-waste is rising globally, it’s declining in the U.S. This promising datum is also misleading: the truth is that e-waste is decreasing in the U.S because new products are lighter and more compact than past offerings. In fact, not all innovations are beneficial. To make lightweight products, manufacturers miniaturized components and glued parts together, making it harder to repair devices and more expensive to recycle them. For solving these challenges, we may treat digital discards as resources. The valuable materials used in electronic devices are now more concentrated in e-waste than in the ground. Moreover, industry, consumers and government all have roles to play: products that are easier to repair and reuse must be designed, consumers should keep their devices longer and responsive e-waste laws are needed. Read this article to learn more about this problem!

Electronic waste at Agbogbloshie, Ghana ©  Muntaka Chasant, via Wikimedia Commons

Printed sensors to monitor plant health in space

Printed sensors have countless applications and now, researchers want to use them also in space! As you might guess, a space trip is not a walk in the park and eating dehydrated, nutrient-dense food is not ideal — when space missions are long, astronauts eventually lack nutrients from fresh vegetables. To solve this challenge, researchers are developing wearable sensors for plants that can detect health and stress levels without human intervention, with the final goal of developing a smart plant chamber capable of identifying the best conditions for plants to grow in. According to scientists, although the main goal for the research is to help people in space, it could also be used back on Earth to mitigate consequences of climate change.

Printed sensors to control prosthetic hands
Flexible sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) are good allies! Researchers from California have developed a wearable sensor that can measure electrical signals in the forearm and then use AI to correlate them with hand gesture. The result has been awesome – the system can control a robotic prosthetic hand providing a way for amputees to perform delicate movements! What’s more, the included AI system allows for extremely rapid learning, and it can constantly update itself as new information becomes available. The researchers hope that the system will enable delicate prosthetic control.