A new biodegradable electronics technology has just been developed by researchers from the University of Illinois in partnership with Tufts University and Northwestern University. The new electronics can degrade in water or body fluids, and could present new advancements for medical implants, environmental monitors, and consumer electronics.
The team is led by John Rogers, a materials scientist at the University of Illinois and Fiorenzo Omenetto, a biomedical engineer at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Back in 2009, Rogers and Omenetto realized their unique research backgrounds could be put together in the development of a useful new technology.
Rogers was an expert on flexible silicon electronics while Omenetto was researching a tough, biocompatible silk. And combining the two areas of expertise allowed them an interdisciplinary approach to generate the new biodegradable electronics. They can now create almost any kind of high-performance electronics devise dissolve in a liquid.
In fact, one of their latest creations was a simple digital camera.
How Biodegradable Electronics Work
Rogers and Omenetto realized that in order for any electronics to work for an extended period of time, they needed to use silicon. However, traditional silicon wafers would take thousands of years to dissolve. Instead, the team created ultra-thin silicon membranes that were 100 nanometres thick. These silicon membranes could dissolve at a rate of 4.5 nanometres per day.
Encapsulating the silicon membranes is a layer of biocompatible silk – which can also be dissolved in water. Adjusting the thickness of the silk can determine how long the devise will last before dissolving. The devises can last for as short as a few minutes to as long as a few years.
The Way Forward
Rogers and Omenetto are excited about the new technology and see it as being particularly useful in medicine, where the ability to incorporate electronics in the human body for short periods of time may be helpful – for instance implants that perform diagnostic or therapeutic functions for short periods of time.
Another application would be in environmental monitoring technology after chemical spills, as monitors are only required for specific periods of time after the spill. In addition, biodegradable electronics could be used in a host of consumer electronics.
As the technology is still in its infancy, there will likely be other advancements as research continues. It will be interesting to see where the state of biodegradable electronics will be 20 years from now.
Image: A biodegradable integrated circuit is dissolved in water (credit: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University)