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Cool Technology: Stretchy Electronics and Sensors that Can Dissolve in Your Body

A 21st century interface of engineering and oncology may bring better medicine to patients. Learn about electoceuticals and how they may help prevent infections, and why next-generation electronics that can stretch to fit over catheters or dissolve once no longer needed may benefit patients.

John Rogers, PhD
John Rogers, PhD - Stretchy Electronics and Sensors That Can Dissolve in Your Body

October 24, 2013- The Rogers Research Group at the University of Illinois bills itself as “Science that Brings Solutions to Society.” They are working on a host of projects that seem at once futuristic and extremely rational. Rogers is a physicist and a chemist and his website summarizes their goals thusly: “We seek to understand and exploit interesting characteristics of 'soft' materials, such as polymers, liquid crystals, and biological tissues as well as hybrid combinations of them with unusual classes of micro/nanomaterials, in the form of ribbons, wires, membranes, tubes or related.”

During his presentation today that the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s 20th Annual Scientific Retreat, Rogers spoke about building “transient electronics” that are not only smaller than past iterations but disappear when no longer needed. He also spoke about the need to make “stretchy” electronics that have more lifelike properties, such as the elasticity of skin, vs. the hard, flat and rigid surfaces of conventional electronics.

He defined transient electronics as those that “dissolve, reabsorb, or otherwise physically disappear at programed rates or triggered times.”

These transient electronics may be used as implantable devices for delivering a therapy or diagnosing a condition among other applications.

To adapt to a stretchy form he and colleagues are using extremely thin slices of silicon and then buckling it to make it stretch with a wavelike ability such as when we pull our skin up or sideways. He used a graphic of hard wood blocks to represent hard electronic wafers and Kleenex tissues to represent how very thin adaptations of cellulose can change the very nature of an object making it far more flexible.

stretchy electronics

stretchy electronics

Such stretchy electronics might be placed on medical balloons used in catheters; these might give doctors feedback on internal conditions in a patient during or after surgery. They are working with the medical concern Medtronics to develop such monitoring devices.

Another new term for the lexicon from the Rogers lab: transient electroceuticals. These will either replace or complement conventional pharmaceuticals.

Rogers says there are several candidate semiconductors for transient electroceuticals: polymers, small molecules, single crystals, carbon nanotubes, and graphene.

Rogers says that silicon can dissolve by hydrolysis based upon thickness. Conventional electronics use silicon wafers with a thickness of 700 micrometers (ums) that take 600 years to dissolve with water exposure. But with silicon for transient electronics, if a 35 ultra thin nanometer thickness is used, dissolution occurs over ~10 days.

Examples of electroceuticals include a non-antibiotic device the kills bacteria, with potential benefits of bypassing antibiotic resistance.

Other potential offerings include the use of electroceuticals for pain control, tissue repair/growth, drug delivery at programed times and rates and as internal sensors to monitor disease states such as diabetes or brain injury.

Rogers said he planned to launch discussions with prostate cancer researchers to determine ways his lab’s technology might benefit prostate cancer patients specifically.

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