Break-down Electronics in a Biologically Safe Way

Born-to-die electronics could save lives and change how we use computers

Break-down Electronics in a Biologically Safe Way

Image courtesy of [Victor Habbick] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Probably the single most troubling thing about the inescapable advance of technological obsolescence is the rate at which old devices are being thrown out. It’s not just the landfills full of last year’s superphone, nor the rare Earth elements we’re mining at incredible speeds, but the sheer, simple waste of it, as well.

But what if electronics were designed on the molecular level to be biodegradable? What if recycling a phone was as simple as buying a small bottle of solvent and leaving the phone for several hours? What if you could pour out your old iPhone and return the insoluble metals left over for a discount on your next handset?

That’s one of the many possible uses for a new technology that could see integrated circuits built on soluble chips, along with many of the other pieces they require. Professor John A. Rogers and his team of researchers at the University of Illinois have made significant progress in the field, and they have a lot of ideas about how it might change the world.

Beyond the applications for recycling, the team sees biomedical science as a major application. Currently, inserting foreign technology is difficult not just in the implantation, but in the extraction as well; many pieces of technology are simply left inside a patient, since that often ends up being less dangerous than an additional surgery. This research could lead to a future for implanted technology in which implants simply melt away into the blood-stream, either as a slow, natural reaction beginning at the moment of insertion or as a catalyzed reaction begun by an injected agent.

In either case, the ability to break down electronics in a biologically safe way has huge benefits. Environmental monitors could be peppered throughout an area without the need to worry about collecting them again later. Whether it’s tracking bird populations on a grassy tundra or measuring the chemistry of a oceanographic oil spill, the ability to use technology with a built-in timer will open up all new applications, or make feasible old ideas that could never succeed practically.

Though the team doesn’t mention it in the video, the US military has taken an interest in the concept. It’s not hard to image why, as covert technology advances along lines from miniaturization to autonomous artificial intelligence. In surveillance, the problem of extraction is just as profound as it is for surgery. The ability to insert a drone designed to die after a prescribed amount of time, to liquify or break down beyond the point of recognition, is extremely enticing to DARPA, the military’s advanced research arm. DARPA has thrown significant funding behind this effort, and no doubt has a wide array of application in mind.

Of course, not every component of modern circuit boards can be so easily replaced with a degradable polymer. Their primary material of interest is actually a purified form of the silk produced by silk worms for cocoons.  That works for the plastic boards and other simple substrates, but efficient conducting materials are much harder. They found that ribbons of magnesium work well as conductors since it will naturally break down to a molecular level when immersed in water. Super-thin sheets of silicon, used for semiconductors will break down in much the same way.

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