DARPA’s Dissolvable Transient Electronics

Written by Mike Awada on . Posted in Gadgets, Science, Technology


Via Darpa.Mil

Functional electronic devices that can dissolve in water or other fluids at a set point in time offer up a myriad of possibilities to the world.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has funded a successful study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, Tufts University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that showcased the feasibility of dissolvable or transient electronics to the world. How we can use this technology in the real world is where things get interesting.

Transient Electronics

What would be the point of a transient electronic device? The researchers behind the seemingly bizarre idea believe they are limitless. DARPA was interested in dissolving electronics to aid soldiers in a number of ways, including as a means of getting high tech equipment behind enemy lines that could destroy itself without a trace.

The Environmental Protection Agency is interested because they can send out thousands of smart sensors to monitor natural disasters without the need to retrieve them or risk pollution. Finally, the medical field is drooling over the potential of dissolvable electronics because they’ll enable medical professionals to send vital equipment inside a patient without having to worry about retrieving it later.


The transient devices created in the study were both functional and biocompatible, meaning they existed harmoniously with life; there were no toxic or injurious effects on biological functions associated. Just how is that possible?

Ultra thin sheets of magnesium and silicon, staples of modern electronic devices yet also naturally occurring within the human body, comprise the guts of the device. A silk skin protects them from dissolving too soon. The life length of the electronic device is determined by the thickness of the silk, and can be set to minutes, hours, days and maybe longer.

Health Concerns?

Amazingly, every single component of each electronic device including chemical sensors and power sources is able to serve it’s purpose and then eventually dissolve. Dr. Yonggang Huang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern, says of the health concerns, “We used only metals that already exist in the body, so we’re confident they can dissolve without concerns about toxicity.”

Medical Applications

The coolest feature to date of transient electronics is probably found within the medical field, where a dissolvable sensor or monitor could be ingested or implanted in the body and while there, act like a Doctor from within. Medication can be administered, recovery from surgery or illness could be monitored and vital sign data could be relayed with peak accuracy. This is one of the main factors that excited DARPA to get involved.

DARPA Program Manager Alicia Jackson said of the technology, “A limitation of current implanted devices such as pacemakers and artificial joints is localized infection. Applying thin film appliqués to implant devices for localized surface heating and sterilization may help counter these infections, even when antibiotic resistant bacteria are present. Having means of eradicating infections could enhance the efficacy of many implant devices and ultimately reduce patient morbidity and mortality.”

The Future

This concept opens up a crazy can of worms for the future. Are there any limitations to the technology? Could we soon tweak crucial laptop, tablet and cell phone components to be dissolvable? How about engine or appliance parts? Transient electronics could one day prove to be a key cog to curbing pollution.

Where we are today and where this technology can possibly go are light years apart from each other, but dissolvable electronics lay an incredible foundation for new uses and horizons for technology in our lives in the coming years.

DARPA via Forbes



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