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Environmentally safe electronics that also vanish in the body

28 September 2012

A new class of electronics is coming to market: small, robust and high-performance, yet also bio-compatible and capable of dissolving completely in water.

Photo credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University
Photo credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University

Researchers at the University of Illinois (UI), in collaboration with Tufts University and Northwestern University, have demonstrated a new type of biodegradable electronics technology that could introduce new design paradigms for medical implants, environmental monitors and consumer devices.

“We refer to this type of technology as transient electronics,” said John  Rogers, Professor of Engineering at the UI, who led the multidisciplinary research team. “From the earliest days of the electronics industry, a key design goal has been to build devices that last forever – with completely stable performance. But if you think about the opposite possibility – devices that are engineered to physically disappear in a controlled and programmed manner – then other, completely different kinds of application opportunities open up.”

Three application areas appear particularly promising.  First are medical implants that perform important diagnostic or therapeutic functions for a useful amount of time and then simply dissolve and are re-absorbed in the body.

Second are environmental monitors, such as wireless sensors that are dispersed after a chemical spill, that degrade over time to eliminate any ecological impact. Third are consumer electronic systems or sub-components that can be composted, to reduce electronic waste streams generated by devices that are frequently upgraded, such as cellphones or other portable devices.

Transient electronic systems harness and extend various techniques that the Rogers’ group has developed over the years for making tiny, yet high performance electronic systems out of ultra-thin sheets of silicon. In transient applications, the sheets are so thin that they completely dissolve in a few days when immersed in bio-fluids.

Together with soluble conductors and dielectrics, based on magnesium and magnesium oxide, these materials provide a complete palette for a wide range of electronic components, sensors, wireless transmission systems and more.

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