Researchers at the University of Illinois (UI), Champaign, in collaboration with Tufts and Northwestern universities, have created a new class of electronic devices: biocompatible and biodegradable electronics for medical implants that can dissolve completely in water or in body fluids.

“We refer to this type of technology as transient electronics,” said John A. Rogers, the Lee J. Flory-Founder Professor of Engineering at UI, who led the multidisciplinary research team. “From the earliest days of the electronics industry, a key design goal has been to build devices that last forever – with completely stable performance. But if you think about the opposite possibility – devices that are engineered to physically disappear in a controlled and programmed manner – then other, completely different kinds of application opportunities open up.”

This technology could mean the introduction of medical implants that perform diagnostic or therapeutic functions for a specific period of time and then dissolve and resorb in the body. Transient electronic systems harness and extend various techniques that the Rogers’ group has developed over the years for making tiny, yet high performance electronic systems out of ultrathin sheets of silicon. Then the researchers encapsulate the devices in silk. The silk structure determines the rate of dissolution, from minutes, to days, to weeks, or even years.

Since the group uses silicon, the industry standard material for integrated circuits, they can make highly sophisticated devices in ways that exploit well-established designs by introducing just a few additional tricks in layout, manufacturing, and supporting materials. As reported in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Science, the researchers have already demonstrated an implantable device designed to monitor and prevent bacterial infection at surgical incisions.