Professors from UA, Illinois developing biodegradable electronics
Photo courtesy of Marvin Slepian
A collaborative effort between a UA researcher and a researcher at the University of Illinois could be the end of all businesses in the computer-recycling industry.
Dr. Marvin Slepian, a professor of medicine and biomedical engineering at UA, and John Rogers, an engineering and material science professor at Illinois and the project’s primary investigator, are in the early stages of a development that aims to make electronics biodegradable.
Slepian said that the past years in electronics development have been focused on making circuitry faster and smaller, a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law, which states that computing power will increase at an exponential rate. However, development in those areas is currently approaching its limits, as conventional circuit designs begin to reach the extent of what is physically possible. Slepian said that because of this, development in other directions is important.
“Electronics today are made of components that are permanent: silicon in thick form, metals and plastics,” Slepian said. “All these things form components, but they’re permanent, so you wind up changing your computer every few years, or your cell phone, and a lot of the stuff becomes electronic junk.”
Slepian calls these kinds of electronics “transient electronics,” adding that two years ago, he and Rogers were able to develop stretchable electronics, and that they are now focusing on making things completely degradable.
The transient electronics use a degradable “backbone,” such as silk, as a base for mounting circuits on. The circuit components are made of materials such as magnesium, thin iron or extremely thin silicon, all of which are dissolvable.
Rogers and Slepian have successfully developed degradable versions of basic circuit components such as capacitors and resistors, which means that these components could be used to create larger and more complex circuits and devices. Rogers and Slepian also showcased a heating device that was implanted into an animal model, and degraded over the course of a few weeks without causing any damage or inflammation to the tissue.
This means that it would be possible in the future to create consumer electronics that degrade, instead of sitting in landfills. Slepian said that this is a long-term goal, however, and that the advances he and Rogers have made are merely a starting point.
A much more immediate application of transient electronics could be in the medical field, where they could be used to create temporary implantable sensors or monitors that would safely dissolve inside a patient’s body, as opposed to permanent devices, which are much harder on the body.
Slepian said that this progress demonstrates the power of interdisciplinary and interuniversity collaboration.
“They beauty of the collaborative effort is that they [University of Illinois] are hardcore electronics people that are fabricating things,” he said, “and we [UA] are working on novel applications of these things, and talking about how we might want to design specific devices.”
Slepian added that the project is in its very early stages, and that putting a device on the market is still in the long-term future.