Magic smartphone trees: technology for a circular economy

Physics
Taken from the October 2021 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Laura Hiscott reviews Brave Green World: How Science Can Save Our Planet by Chris Forman and Claire Asher

3D and 4D printing could play a key role in tackling the challenges we face as a species. (CC BY SA Jonathan Juursema)

“How incredible would it be if a smartphone could be grown like an apple on a tree?” So ask physicist Chris Forman and science communicator Claire Asher in their new book Brave Green World: How Science Can Save Our Planet. As fantastical as it might sound, they are not just idly imagining such a scenario.

The question of how to build a circular economy inspired by nature’s systems is the focus of the book, and the possibility of a “biosmartphone” forms a case study. Sections at the end of each chapter speculate on how key features, from the touchscreen to the electronics, might be recreated in more sustainable ways that would lend themselves to manufacturing and recycling in a closed-loop system.

The authors draw on the full spectrum of fields within science and engineering to explore how current and future technologies could transform all aspects of production. One chapter looks at the potential of 3D and 4D printing to mimic how proteins are assembled in cells, and what we could learn from non-equilibrium physics to create organized systems of recycling at the smallest scale. Elsewhere, the book examines the precision control involved in synthetic biology and the possible role of artificial intelligence in designing products and processes to fit a circular system.

While at times the suggestions feel too futuristic, the book is illustrated throughout with existing examples of technologies discussed. The (immense) difficulty is in piecing them together to create an overarching structure, which the book concedes has “colossal technical challenges”. Nevertheless, it is an exciting and original contribution to the discussion around sustainability, and it certainly refreshes my appreciation for nature, which has evolved the incredibly complex, ordered and efficient systems that we wish to emulate.

  • 2021 MIT Press $29.95pb 256pp

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