Scientists at the at the University of Illinois, in collaboration with Tufts University, the University of Arizona and Northwestern University have developed electronics that will dissolve in water or “bodily fluids”. This means that doctors may eventually be able to use dissolving sensors to track medical issues. Other uses for electronics that easily dissolve in water would be compostable components for consumer devices like phones, and tablets that are exchanged every 18 months to two years.
According to the University of Arizona these electronics would be excellent for three different types of uses:
Three application areas appear particularly promising. First are medical implants that perform important diagnostic or therapeutic functions for a useful amount of time and then simply dissolve and resorb in the body. Second are environmental monitors, such as wireless sensors that are dispersed after a chemical spill, that degrade over time to eliminate any ecological impact. Third are consumer electronic systems or sub-components that are compostable, to reduce electronic waste streams generated by devices that are frequently upgraded, such as cell phones or other portable devices.
Having telephone components that actually dissolve if tossed in a compost heap would really cut down on electronic waste as long as the dissolving parts didn’t include dangerous materials. According to Greenpeace many cell phones contain such hazardous substances as “lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium and hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants.” The type of dissolving components that the researchers are promoting would seem to lack the dangerous chemicals and heavy metals mentioned above.
The most interesting use of these new electronics would be in medicine. Doctors could implant sensors that would monitor your heart rate or blood pressure for a set period of time and then be absorbed harmlessly into the body when finished. One such use that the researchers mentioned was creating sensors that would monitor surgical sites for possible infection and would be absorbed in the body as the incision heals.
I’m sure that there are plenty of patients who would prefer dissolving catheters to enduring their removal. For people who need temporary monitoring of their heart, liver, kidneys, or bladder, a simple time controlled sensor could be implanted that would dissolve once the need for it was over. Heck, imagine a miniature maneuverable camera that could be swallowed to check the stomach, upper GI tract and colon. The camera would be able to show the doctor what they needed without the need of tubes, or anesthesia and if it did hit an obstruction, it would dissolve without causing further problems.
Like most things medical, it would probably come with a high price tag but for something that might require only one procedure instead of two, it would be worth it. We can only hope that these new electronic devices will make it to an operating room before the middle of this century. Here’s hoping its sooner rather than later.
A biodegradable integrated circuit during dissolution in water. (Photo courtesy of Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University)
Top Photograph: Biodegradable electronics could help reduce waste streams from obsolete electronic devices. (Photo courtesy of Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University)