Electronics that melt away inside the human body, when their job is done, have been created by specialist laboratories in America and can be adapted for a range of medical purposes.
It sounds like something out of science fiction but it is coming here and now, according to new research published in the journal, Science. The electronic implant technology has proven itself as in being used to raise the temperature of a wound so as to maintain it free from infection by bacteria. Like computer chips the implants are manufactured on super thin silicon and magnesium oxide and encased in an invisible layer of silk.
This futuristic medical arena is called “transient electronics.” The same researchers have already succeeded in developing so-called â€˜electronic tattoos.’ These are sensors that move, expand and contract like a second layer of skin. The researchers describe their disappearing bio-machines as the “polar opposite” of standard electronics as we normally think of them. These are made for stability and longevity, not to function and go.
Enabling the electronics to disappear without trace in a predetermined way is only possible because of two new innovative pieces of science. Firstly making the dissolving trigger on the electronics and using a silk patina to time trigger just when this happens.
Silicon is soluble in water to begin with but it is the magnitude of sub parts in standard electronics means it would take a very long time. The scientists made use of unimaginably thin layers of silicon, called a â€˜Nano membraneâ€™. It is this that can fade away in a controlled way in just days or weeks. The disappearance rate is measured by the silk.
Silk is of course a naturally occurring material harvested from worm silkworms, broken down in a solution and allowed to regrow. By changing the way silk crystallizes, the scientists alter its physical characteristics and enable the controlled melting in body.
Professor Omenetto, at Tufts school of engineering, said: “Transient electronics offer robust performance comparable to current devices but they will fully re-absorb into their environment at a prescribed time, ranging from minutes to years.”
A wide range of possible applications have already been put to the test with things like a digital camera, temperature recorders and sensors, and solar batteries. The potential uses have only begun to be tapped because this is such a new concept. One particularly exciting use is seen within surgical wounds. Postoperative infection is a major cause of returns to hospital. A melt away device can be implanted at the end of surgery and in the most susceptible area so that it can heat the area to keep it free from infection. But just for the danger time period. The devices may also be used for the controlled slow release of drugs over a temporary time period. Or maybe even to make all of our modern electronic devices with a planned biodegradable function to reduce landfill.