The Future is Here: Electronics that Dissolve

electronicsIt is no secret that research into nanotechnology is bearing fruit these days. Back in February, both Standford and MIT unveiled implantable devices which would be capable of delivering drugs directly into the human blood stream and detecting health problems. However, despite all the progress being made in terms of nano-miniaturization, there are still numerous barriers which need to be overcome.

For example, having microelectronics in the body, while initially beneficial, might prove problematic with time. What’s to happen when they are finished their jobs, become obsolete, or simply stop working after awhile? As anyone who’s ever owned a computer, PDA, mobile device or laptop can tell you, the stuff breaks! And if it does happen to live past its warranty, chances are it will be obsolete in six months… tops!

Such machines need a way to be removed, but given their size (o.oooooooo1 meters), that’s not exactly practical. And even if it were, there’s the question of disposal. Once commercially viable, there are likely to be billions of nanomachines in circulation. Even at their miniscule scale, such machinery could pose environmental hazards, especially if its likely to malfunction. Ever heard of Grey Goo? Well that’s a scenario that researchers have to consider.

Luckily, researchers at the University of Illinois have come up with a possible solution: electronics that dissolve! Composed of silicon, magnesium, magnesium oxide and contained within a protective layer of silk, these “transient electronics” are built to melt away just as soon as their tasks are complete.

In the process, they will reduce or remove the need to pass or surgically remove medical implants. Using rats as test subject, the researchers built their implants out of extremely thin sheets of silicon called nanomembranes to get the electronics to dissolve in hours or days instead of years.

Of course, the medical applications are clear. Already, electronics are being tailor made for the delivery of drugs, sensors implanted in internal organs to monitor of problems, and temperature monitors created to safeguard against infection and disease. Combined with external sensors, doctors would be able to do a full medical workup within seconds, and much of the guess work involving symptoms and patient history could be eliminated. Exploratory surgery could also become a thing of the past, since doctors would be able to use internal sensors to diagnose unexplained problems.

The researchers also used silk collected from silkworm cocoons to control the speed of disintegration. This is part of a growing field of electrical engineering that seeks to create biodegradable microchips and other electronics, in part for the sake of implantation but also to ensure the elimination of computer waste.

Such waste, which includes disposable cell phones, cameras, and computers, currently accounts for 50 million tons of waste a year. Sixty percent of that is produced in the US, but could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in developing nations such as India and China. Designing these types of components now could ensure the aversion of a possible ecological disaster.