Imagine recovering from an operation without fear of a post-op infection from a drug-resistant super-bug. Imagine that this is because of a tiny electronic device left behind when they sewed you back up, which monitors the wound, picks up signs of infection, administers a specific amount of heat to the right area and then, job done, disappears into your bodily fluids.
Imagine, too, an oil spill clean-up being monitored by 100,000 sensors dropped from a plane that would dissolve into the water when it was all over. Or a no-longer-loved smartphone that could actually dissolve down the sink rather than clog up your desk drawer.
Then imagine what the military could do with these so-called born-to-die devices. How about electronic eyes and ears that couldbe deployed for black ops in a war zone and then be triggered to dissolve when their mission was over or when they were about to be discovered?
And finally, realise that this isn't science fiction from
In one video of this born-to-die technology, when water drops hit the fingernail-sized integrated circuit its see-through silk substrate quickly starts to curl up, causing the strands of silicon and magnesium that make up its circuits to peel away. After just one minute, what had been a fully functioning board, with transistors, diodes and capacitors, is now just a long, thin, dirty strand of gunk.
In another video, it takes just two hours for the integrated circuit to dissolve in a glass of water.
In 2012 a transient device was implanted in the body of a mouse and powered wirelessly. The device was able to produce enough heat to kill off the bacteria that cause post-surgery infections. It lasted two weeks and then dissolved into the mouse's bodily fluids with no obvious side-effects for the mouse.
Now, Professor John A Rogers believes that we may be only "a year or two away" from testing biodegradable electronics in humans, albeit in surface wounds (for which the regulations are lighter). Rogers is head of the
While Rogers is "not allowed to say anything" about his work for Darpa, which began funding his research in 2008, other than that "we have done some amazing demonstrations" for them, he does confess that "I did eat one device, and I didn't feel a thing. It just dissolved in my mouth."
For Rogers, "today's electronics are remarkable feats of engineering" as they are "designed to last forever" with no loss of performance. "However," he says, "when we looked to the future we realised that there was an opportunity for a new electronics - transient electronics - that might function properly for a finite amount of time and then disappear."
However, there are a number of significant challenges that Rogers has to overcome, including trying to work out whether having a piece of electronics that dissolves in our bodies harms our health. There is even the tricky issue of how a water-soluble piece of technology can be mass-produced in a production process that conventionally uses a lot of water. Beyond that, there is the power problem: wireless power transmission is good for devices near, or on, the body surface but not so useful when they have to be implanted deep in the body.
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