Further ahead lies another thorny problem, and one that is vital for the widespread use of the technology: how to get these devices to die on demand - and in substances other than water, so that the
Rogers has tried to get round many of the problems that hold up innovative new technologies by trying to reuse "as much as possible of the stuff that is already out there for semiconductor manufacture" for the mass production of his transient electronics devices. He has also tried to use materials that already have
For example, the integrated circuit shown in the videos uses slices of silicon (silicon nanomembranes) so thin that they will dissolve in water; magnesium rather than copper as the conductor (since magnesium is non-toxic in small quantities and, indeed, an essential nutrient in the human body); and layers of silk to encase the whole device. Its lifespan is determined by the thickness of this silk substrate. The device is wirelessly coupled with an external power source, but in the future it might be powered by the movement of the body, and even have its transience activated remotely.
Other materials, including zinc oxide and bioresorbable polymers already
"Our first attempt at transience was a bit of a hack," he says, "in the sense that the devices we built were small and thin, but only partially transient. We then found ourselves being forced to think about things like the minimum lethal dose of transistors."
"The actual eureka moment came," he adds, "when we had full transience in everything."
Now he is pretty confident that he has materials that can make transient electronics do "meaningful things".
While Rogers has had "some amazing first demonstrations", says
"This concept is incredibly novel and a big deal," says Teri W Odom, professor of chemistry and of materials science and engineering at
Like Dickey, Odom feels that worries over the complexity of these born-to-die devices are "a straw man" as "the real sweet spot" for the technology are low-powered devices that are built to perform a specific function. However, she does warn that "anything in the biomedical arena takes time - in the order of 10 years for a device. Other applications like sensors to detect temperatures of structures like bridges might take less time."
While Rogers accepts that significant challenges remain, they are trying to adapt production lines "that have been designed to manufacture technology that lasts for ever" to make something that might die after two weeks. He argues that as yet unpublished research will demonstrate that transience in dry conditions is possible and that he "can even trigger dissolution remotely, using a radio link". As well as remote control, other triggers Rogers says are possible are "mechanical shocks, temperature change, light exposure and chemical-biological", all of which are more suitable for battlefield conditions or a pollution incident than water. Quietly confident, he states: "it is still very early stages, but we are very optimistic that transient electronics will represent a big breakthrough".
Surgical site infections are a major cause of hospital readmissions. A transient device could be designed to minimise infection by monitoring the wound and then if necessary applying heat in precisely controlled ways in a spatially defined area to kill infections.
If there were a nuclear or chemical spill that required indefinite monitoring, then it might be possible to drop 100,000 transient devices from a plane, which would then transmit information on the clean-up for a set period. Afterwards, they could be programmed to dissolve in groundwater.
Transient electronics may also help us to deal with the tremendous amount of waste caused by abandoned electronics. In the long run it might be possible to construct a smartphone that could actually dissolve down the sink.
The military applications of this technology are numerous and top-secret. One possible use is for electronic sensors that the military can leave behind on the battlefield for covert operations and then trigger to disappear when they are no longer needed.
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