Implants that perform important work inside the body--then dissolve away--are among the potential uses of the "transient electronics" being created at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In a study in the journal Science, John A. Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering and colleagues at Tufts and Northwestern universities, describe biodegradable components made of silicon, magnesium and silk that could be used not only in healthcare, but also in environmentally friendly situations such as the disposal of consumer electronics.
"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," Rogers said in a university announcement.
From the thin sheets of material, the researchers have built transient transistors, diodes, wireless power coils, sensors, photodetectors, solar cells, radio oscillators and antennas, and even simple digital cameras that will dissolve in minute amounts of water.
A key aspect is the ability to control the rate at which the material dissolves, Rogers explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. A medical implant might be needed for only a week or two, while a consumer electronic device might be needed for a couple of years.
He told the Times that devices have been created that can kill bacteria in mice. They could be developed to store drugs and to trigger a controlled delivery. Extensive animal testing will be required before human tests can begin, but Rogers said he hopes human tests can begin in two years.
Rogers was in the news in August for his work on "smart sutures" that include tiny sensors that monitor and accelerate healing.
Meanwhile, Boston-area researchers have found a way to develop nanoscale "scaffolds" that would allow them implant sensors in bioengineered tissue to monitor what's going on with it after it's been implanted.
FierceMobileHealthcare's Sara Jackson also pointed to some interesting findings from the combination of nanotechnology and mobile healthcare, including a device developed at UCLA that includes a phone app that reads test strips to determine whether a patient has HIV, malaria, syphilis or TB.