Updated on 6 October 2012
A biodegradable integrated circuit during dissolution in water. Photo courtsey: Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University
Singapore: Medical devices can dissolve themselves in bodily fluids once they have served their purpose. Science fiction, did you say? Not quite. Researchers at the University of Illinois, in collaboration with Tufts University and Northwestern University, have demonstrated a new type of biodegradable electronics technology that could introduce new design paradigms for medical implants among other things such as environmental monitors and consumer devices.
Among the application areas that appear particularly promising is medical implants that perform important diagnostic or therapeutic functions for a useful amount of time. They can then simply dissolve in the body. The devices have been tested on lab mice. The journal Science reported that the researchers have already demonstrated several system-level devices, including a fully transient 64-pixel digital camera and an implantable applique designed to monitor and prevent bacterial infection at surgical incisions, in rats.
This new class of devices are small, robust and give high performance, yet are biocompatible and capable of dissolving completely in water or in bodily fluids. The website of University of Illinois quotes Prof John A Rogers, the Lee J. Flory-Founder Professor of Engineering at the University of Illinois who led the multidisciplinary research team, as saying, "It's a new concept, so there are lots of opportunities, many of which we probably have not even identified yet."
The technology, called the transient electronic system, uses sheets so thin that they completely dissolve in a few days when immersed in biofluids. Together with soluble conductors and dielectrics, based on magnesium and magnesium oxide, these materials provide a complete palette for a wide range of electronic components, sensors, wireless transmission systems and more.
The researchers encapsulate the devices in silk. The structure of the silk determines its rate of dissolution. The researchers are further refining these and other devices for specific applications, conducting more animal tests, and working to explore high-volume manufacturing possibilities. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency supported the research. The Tufts University team was led by Fiorenzo Omenetto and the Northwestern University team was led by Youggang Huang.