Disappearing electronics? Researchers have discovered how to program devices to dissolve
09/18/2017 // Michelle Simmons // Views

A team of researchers from the University of Houston and China discovered a new type of electronic device that can be dissolved just by being exposed to water molecules in the atmosphere. The study was published in Science Advances.

This model promised for environment-friendly disposable personal electronics and biomedical devices that dissolve within the body.

According to Cunjiang Yu, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, there are also defense applications, such as devices that can be programmed to dissolve in order to secure sensitive information.

The field, known as physically transient electronics, currently requires immersion in aqueous corrosive solutions or biofluids. Yu said this work demonstrated a completely new working mechanism in which the dissolution is triggered by ambient moisture.

“More importantly, the transient period of time can be precisely controlled,” Yu mentioned.

A biomedical implant could be programmed to disappear when its task, which includes delivering medication, is complete. Sensitive communications could be devised to literally vanish once the message was delivered. New versions could be programmed to dissolve when they are no longer needed.

“We demonstrate that polymeric substrates with novel degradation kinetics and associated transience chemistry offer a feasible strategy to construct physically transient electronics,” as written by the researchers.

The researchers noted that through the manipulation of the polymer component and environmental humidity, the progress of hydrolyzing polyanhydrides can be managed. The period of time that an electronic device will take for it to be dissolved can be controlled. Its dissolving time period can range from days to weeks, or even longer, according to the researchers.


As new devices such as computers and phones are continually being developed and made, more of these old devices are being discarded throughout the years. Consequently, toxins from electronic waste can enter the soil and water supplies if these were not disposed properly. (Related: When old electronics meet their end, much ends up becoming toxic waste in China.)

How the model works

The model that the researchers created works through the functional electronic components that were built via additive processes onto a film made of the polymer polyanhydride. The device was stable until the ambient moisture triggered a chemical breakdown that digested the inorganic electronic materials and components.

To present the model's versatility, the researchers tested different compounds such as aluminum, copper, nickel indium-gallium, zinc oxide, and magnesium oxide. In addition, they developed various electronic devices such as resistors, capacitors, antennas, transistors, diodes, photo sensors, and more.

Yu explained that the lifespan of the devices can be controlled by changing the level of humidity or by shifting the composition of polymer.

More on electronic waste

Electronic waste, also called as e-waste, is a term for electronic products that had become unwanted, non-working or obsolete, and had essentially been used up.

In a 2016 report by The Atlantic, it was mentioned that the United Nations Environment Program expected that up to 50 million tons of electronic waste were to be dumped this year. Most of these electronic waste are computers and smartphones.

Researcher around the world continue to develop technology that could solve the problem of disposing electronics in an eco-friendly way. A team of researchers from Stanford created a wearable electronic device that dissolves completely if vinegar is poured on it. Another team of researchers from the Iowa State University developed a battery that dissolves in water within 30 minutes.

Read more news about technological advances at Progress.news.

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