The next time you decide to pass on upgrading your cellphone to the latest model, it could be a big mistake: Researchers are working on technology that might one day allow manufacturers to make self-destructing electronics.
The field is called "transient electronics" and proponents say there are many uses for dissolvable devices beyond forcing consumers to spend money on the newest technology. Some uses include: Doctors implanting tiny medical devices into a wound to help with the healing process, members of the military transmitting critical information and then destroying the device and cell phones programmed to remotely destruct if they were lost or stolen.
John Rogers, a researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says he's getting funding from the National Institutes of Health, DARPA and the Air Force to work on transient electronics.
"It's a different way of thinking about electronics—they would work in a stable, reliable fashion for a predescribed amount of time and then disintegrate and dissolve, effectively disappearing," Rogers says. "We can design a device that can be implanted, go into the body and monitor or accelerate the wound healing process, then disappear" without the need for surgery.
Rogers has already engineered small injectable devices that can last for up to two weeks inside the body using "ultrathin sheets of silicon and zinc oxide," materials that are "water soluble and biocompatible." The devices can be encapsulated in modified silk packaging that slowly degrades in the body, allowing doctors to control how long the device will last.
The devices can communicate using radio frequencies, meaning they could be controlled from outside the body, and some of the devices can be powered by mechanical motion in the body, allowing for "heart-powered" devices that get their energy from the motion of a heartbeat. Current devices can dissolve in about 30 minutes.
Rogers says the technology is almost ready to be used in humans, but will need to go through a strict and "multi-year" testing process by the Food and Drug Administration.
The military and other large research organizations are very interested in the technology. In February, DARPA held a "Vanishing Programmable Resources Day" in Virginia, asking researchers and customers to propose potential uses for the technology.
But the day when your cellphone dissolves secret-agent-style is farther down the line, Rogers says.
"The technical complexity is more of a challenge than the size. Biomedical devices are relatively easy to do because they often only have one function, but with a cellphone, it has display buttons and many other components," he says. "But I think there are reasonable ways to consider at least building a substantial part of the cellphone this way."
Rogers says it will start with "transient components," such as memory cards that can be remotely destroyed and that the research is "moving down the road toward an eventual transient cellphone."
"There are some real ideas along those lines. You can imagine a lot of classified military systems with anti-tampering mechanisms that wouldn't allow enemies to recover data," he says. "Or one day, if you lose a cellphone, you won't have to worry about the data being picked up. With remotely-triggered transience, it'd just dissolve away."