Electronic devices that biodegrade to order could lead to huge medical advances. DARPA is also investing heavily in ‘born-to-die’ technology.
Recover from an operation without fear of a post-op infection from a drug-resistant super-bug. A sensor 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.
An oil spill 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.
Listening devices and cameras could be 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?
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).
Electronics are being produced to dissolve after specified and predetermined times.
Fingernail-sized integrated circuit made from silicon, magnesium and silk takes just one minute to disintegrate upon contact with water.
here 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.
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 Pentagon doesn’t have to wait for rain before the evidence of its covert work disappears.
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 FDA approval to cut out more potential hold-ups.
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 FDA-approved, can work in transient technology as well, giving Rogers “a wide palette of materials to work from”.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
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