Since the dawn of the computer age, we’ve been focused developing tech to be better, faster, stronger, and to last longer. But a team of researchers from University of Illinois (UI) have taken things in a different direction with a set of electronics that dissolve on command.
Now, this isn’t the first time a piece of vanishing tech has popped up, DARPA developed a self-destructing camera back in 2014. But the UI team believes their method takes us one step closer towards creating sustainable electronics – they’re not just talking demolition, but also what comes next.
“We’ve built our entire careers on creating tough tech. So, ‘Why?’ Is the obvious question,” says UI aerospace engineering professor Scott White, who worked on the project. “One reason is to reduce the amount of waste we produce. We can recycle these devices completely and make a new device out of each of them. That was our original motivation.”
The process relies on three things: a weak acid, a bit of wax, and heat. When the wax is heated, say by a specially-designed disposal unit, or a a remote trigger, the acid is released and breaks the otherwise non-biodegradable components down into their molecular elements.
“If you can’t keep using something, whether it’s obsolete or just doesn’t work anymore, we’d like to be able to bring it back to the building blocks of the material so you can recycle them when you’re done,” says White. “Or if you can’t recycle them, have it dissolve away and not sit around in landfills.”
The hard truth is, even our tiny electronics create a big problem in terms of waste. In fact, only an average 25 percent of our favorite gadgets are recycled at all. “The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan — where very dirty things happen to it,” e-waste specialist Jim Puckett, told NPR.
Of course, waste-reduction isn’t the only application of this new tech (cough, cough, Mission Impossible, cough). White and has team have also worked on a silicone-based, water-dissolvable version, which could be used for biomedical implants that have reached their prime, or for environmental monitors, like those dispersed after a chemical spill, that would degrade to eliminate any ecological impact.
“Transistors, diodes, wireless power coils, sensors, photodetectors, solar cells… even simple digital cameras. It’s a new concept, so there are lots of opportunities, many of which we probably have not even identified yet,” adds professor John A. Rogers, who led the research team. “We’re very excited. These findings open up entirely new areas of application, and associated directions for research in electronics.”