Now you see it, now you don’t: there’s an emerging type of technology that hinges on pulling a literal disappearing act. Physically transient electronics are devices that actually disappear in a controlled manner. These electronics, under the right environmental conditions, will actually vanish — a trait that has a wide assortment of applications in all sorts of fields. And a new breakthrough by scientists is making this technology far more user-friendly.
Scientists at the University of Houston Nanofabrication Facility and the University of Science and Technology of China have developed a type of physically transient electronics that can be triggered by moisture. Previous iterations relied on aqueous solutions or biofluids to perform their disappearing act. While effective, this method was unfortunately limiting in terms of control of the degradation process of the technology.
The new moisture-triggered models are unencumbered by such drawbacks. They can completely disappear within specific and controlled time-frames. The devices are triggered by the hydrolysis of a polyanhydride substrate that appears in the trace amounts of moisture in the air. This process creates products of corrosive organic acids, which can digest an assortment of inorganic electronic materials.
This method relies on polyanhydride to achieve its goals; this substrate is the sole type of polymer that experiences surface erosion. It is this unique feature that allows scientists to manipulate and control the degradation timeline. With this tool, engineers can alter the degradation time simply by either adjusting the moisture levels or altering the polymer substrate’s composition. The timeline can be anywhere from a few days to even weeks long, depending on the function of a particular device.
The applications for this type of transient electronics are numerous, and in fact regularly expanding. The medical community in particular is excited about this development; transient electronics can be used to reduce or even eliminate the need for second surgeries currently required to remove electronic implants. Instead of an invasive procedure, the device would simply disappear. But it’s not only medical professionals with a vested interest in these devices; anyone worried about leaking sensitive data can see the appeal of a device that will erode and vanish after a short period of time. Finally, transient electronics could significantly help to handle the growing and pervasive problem of electronic waste — a disappearing act with a positive final outcome.