Technology

Why Design Electronics To Self-Destruct?

All most consumers want is something that's built to last. So why are so many researchers working on electronics that are built to self-destruct? Well, for certain applications, a gadget with a long life is the last thing you want.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

The development of so-called "transient electronics" has been going on for the better part of a decade. In 2012, DARPA and the National Science Foundation funded one of the first ventures to create devices designed to last anywhere from years to hours before dissolving. Those devices and others developed later all required full immersion in some sort of fluid in order to break down.

But most recently, a study published in the journal Science in September 2017 demonstrated a new type of self-destructing gadget that doesn't require immersion. Instead, its breakdown can be precisely controlled based on the moisture levels in the air. By changing the composition of the polymer they use to embed the electronics to work with the ambient moisture levels, the researchers can program these devices to break down after a specific amount of time.

VAPR electronics are capable of dissolving when triggered.

But Why?

When most people just hope and pray their smartphone will stay intact for the length of their phone contract, it might seem crazy that scientists want to make electronics that break down sooner rather than later. But the prospects for transient electronics are massive.

Imagine medical devices that harmlessly dissolve when they're done working instead of requiring a second surgery to remove them, or drug systems that are programmed to dissolve and deliver a therapy at a precise time. And of course, there's a reason DARPA funded some of this research: military communiqués could self-destruct James Bond-style, or you could drop transient sensors into combat zones where they could self-destruct to avoid detection.

There are also huge implications for the environment. According to the EPA, the U.S. threw out about 2.4 million tons of electronics in 2009, and only 25 percent of that was recycled. That lets toxic metals leach into the environment and cause serious problems. Forget trying to make a longer-lasting smartphone — what if we specifically designed devices to break down after a certain number of years? It could be a real boon for the planet, and give you less guilt about buying the latest and greatest gadget, to boot.

"Transient Electronics" Vanish When Wet

Written By Ashley Hamer September 18, 2017