Zhenan Bao – Whole Earth Hero

Posted by Whole Earth | 02.11.2019


Zhenan Bao – Whole Earth Hero


Whole Earth Heroes are people who are making a difference in the way we approach life on planet Earth. The idea of the Heroes grew out of our Whole Earth Kids program. We wanted to introduce kids to important environmental concepts, and it made sense to include individuals working in those areas. Our first Whole Earth Hero is Zhenan Bao of Stanford University who is working to solve a particularly important problem in recycling – electronic waste.


Bao was born in Nanjing China in 1970. She moved to the US in 1990 to study Chemistry at the University of Chicago. She spoke no English.  Five years later she had her Ph.D.  With more than 400 refereed publications and more than 60 patents, Nature magazine named her one of the ten people who matter for the planet’s future.


The hunt is on for a new material to replace those used to make our electronic devices. Bao is working on creating one that can stretch, biodegrade, has self-healing properties, and perform electrical functions. Such a material could not only be used to create the body of our electronic devices but, with its electrical properties, could also be used for batteries, sensors and circuits.


Semiconductors are the brains of our electronic devices. When we upgrade our computers, tablets, phones and other electronic items, the old devices are hopefully recycled properly. But some of the parts that make up these devices contain harmful materials that endanger workers who sort the materials and the environment.


In 2018, it’s estimated that almost 50 million metric tons of e-waste was created globally. An elephant weighs approximately a metric ton, so in 2018, the e-waste created equaled approximately 50 million elephants. That’s a huge problem. 


By developing biodegradable semiconductors and devices, Bao and her team could help to drastically reduce this dangerous electronic waste in the future. These new semiconductors can biodegrade into non-toxic products when exposed to a weak acid like vinegar.


There are also possible medical applications for this material. Bao hopes that the thin, flexible material will someday be used to help restore the sense of touch for people using prosthetics.

When asked by Media Planet what advice she would give to a young woman considering a career as a STEM researcher, she replied:


“I always tell young people, including young girls, that it is important to choose a career they are passionate about. If they choose something they enjoy and something that motivates them to work harder, they can push their own limit. Then, they can overcome any obstacles in front of them.”*


Though we are still some years away from the general use of biodegradable devices, it is heartening to know that the work has begun and that one day it will be possible to reduce the amount of electronic waste polluting our world.




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