Dissolving electronics could make for greener devices

Tiny electronics that can dissolve in the environment — or in the human body — could bring with them a wealth of new applications.

Made with ultra-thin silicon circuits encapsulated in silk protein, the “transient electronics” could make possible medical implants that never need to be removed surgically … they could just dissolve harmlessly into the body after they’ve served their purpose.

Such electronics could also be used in consumer goods, environmental monitors and other devices. By becoming compost instead of waste when they’re discarded, they could dramatically reduce today’s large volumes of device-related trash.

“Transient electronics offer robust performance comparable to current devices, but they will fully resorb into their environment at a prescribed time—ranging from minutes to years, depending on the application,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts University. “Imagine the environmental benefits if cell phones, for example, could just dissolve instead of languishing in landfills for years.”

Omenetto’s team successfully tested the concept in a study conducted with researchers at the University of Illinois, China’s Dalian University of Technology, Nano Terra in Boston, Northwestern University, Seoul National University and the University of Arizona.

Their tests included a thermal device (demonstrated in a rat model) for monitoring and preventing post-surgical infection and a 64-pixel digital camera.

“These devices are the polar opposite of conventional electronics whose integrated circuits are designed for long-term physical and electronic stability,” Omenetto said.

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