By Amanda Preske, Ph.D.
I’ve had a very nonstandard path towards my current career. My professional foray into science started in 2006 when I was a freshman at RIT. Today, I blend my love of art and science into Circuit Breaker Labs, a business I started to share my STEM-based wearable art and act as a platform to encourage people to recycle their old electronics.
I’ve always enjoyed science and art. I think I really grew an attachment to chemistry because it’s a science that enables me to create something new.
In graduate school, I worked on making semiconductor nanocrystals. They’re really tiny; 37,500 of them could fit across the width of a human hair. Semiconductors are known for their use in solar cells. Like metals, they can conduct electricity, but only when energy, like photons from the sun, have been put into them. What makes semiconductor nanocrystals different from the silicon semiconductor in a solar panel is the size of the crystal. The nanocrystals I made were so tiny that they started to have properties, like color, that depended on their size. That’s like cutting a piece of red paper in half and getting two smaller pieces of blue paper!
Nanocrystals have technically been around for hundreds of years. Red and yellow glass in stained glass panels from the 1500s appeared that way because of lead and silver nanoparticles embedded in the glass. The field has come a long way since with advances in techniques for making them and studying their unique physical characteristics. Due to how simple they are to make and how precise you can make their color, they have been incorporated into televisions (QLED TVs).
Perhaps more impactful than stained glass and television is that semiconductor nanocrystals can be used to help cure disease. It’s difficult to image the body because your tissues emit light in a broad range, spanning from visible light to the infrared. There are a few “windows” where we don’t emit interfering light and where you can use a dye to see what’s happening. However, most carbon-based dyes (kind of like food coloring) don’t work well in those windows and they fade quickly. Semiconductor nanocrystals are perfect for this since they don’t fade and you can make them to fit in the window. When researchers are able to image the body, they can better determine the mechanism of a disease and develop a strategy to cure it.
My work on semiconductor nanocrystals focused on determining how they crystalize and how to make the synthesis more rational. Much like the way rock candy is made by crystalizing sugar, I sought to concretely determine what factors determined crystal size and shape, and worked to design syntheses that would enable me to be able to make whatever I wanted, precisely. Why bother? By figuring these things out, the result is a predictable synthesis at lower cost with less waste. Economically, this is incredibly important to advance the field and offer a path towards scaling up, so that those wonderful applications, like medical imaging and solar cells, can actually be manufactured.
Since earning my PhD in chemistry in 2016, I’ve been working full time on Circuit Breaker Labs. Though I’ve traded a science career for an arts career, I think it’s important to point out the many parallels between science and art.
The maker movement celebrates and encourages making of all types ranging from home-built electronics to cooking, knitting to welding, and robotics to sustainable gardening. This new age approach to combining tech with art really embodies STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. Traditionally the sciences are referred to just as STEM, and the addition of “art” injects the process with intentional creativity.
As a maker working primarily with broken electronics, I’ve learned a lot about the convoluted economics and ecological ramifications of technology. In the age of planned obsolescence, it’s increasingly important to be aware of your technology use and how it is handled at end-of-life. Have you ever noticed how your electronics just don’t last as long or work as quickly as they used to? Because of this intentional decline in functionality and sheer volume of use, we’re facing an electronics waste problem.
Americans dump phones containing over $60 million in gold and silver every year. Only 12.5% of e-waste is currently recycled. For every 1 million cell phones that are discarded, 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium could have been recovered. What’s worse is that many recycling companies ship what little waste is collected overseas, where locals are stuck with the dangerous responsibility of separating toxic materials under inadequate conditions.
Locally, there are many options for recycling your electronics in a responsible way. Look for a recycler that is R2 certified to guarantee that everything is handled under strict guidelines and is not shipped overseas. Sunnking (in Brockport) and Ewaste+ (in Victor) are fantastic options. Furthermore, the city of Rochester organizes e-waste collection drives multiple times a year.
Also consider repurposing, fixing, or reducing your use of electronics. Ifixit.com is a fantastic resource for locating instructions to repair your items. Don’t throw something away just because it has a cracked screen, fix it! Many waste electronics are actually still functional, so please consider rehoming the item before recycling it. If you have old circuit boards, I’ll happily repurpose them into jewelry!
March for the advancement of science and technology (and math and engineering and art!), but please also be conscientious of the waste these advancements create. Encourage others to include waste management in the lifecycle of scientific progress. And please, recycle your poster after the march.
References and Resources:
Slade, Giles. “iWaste.” Mother Jones, 2007. Web Accessed April 11, 2015.
Voakes, Greg. “The Lesser-Known Facts About E-Waste Recycling.” Business Insider, 2012. Web Accessed April 11, 2015.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Fact Sheet: MANAGEMENT OF ELECTRONIC WASTE IN THE UNITED STATES.” Web Accessed April 11, 2015.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Wastes – Resource Conservation – Common Wastes & Materials – eCycling.” Web Accessed April 11, 2015.
About the Author
Amanda Preske holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Rochester and is the founder of Circuit Breaker Labs.
Photos courtesy of Amanda Preske and Circuit Breaker Labs
This blog is a publication of the Rochester NY March for Science. Opinions are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the ROC-MFS.