When I last spoke to John Rogers from the University of Illinois, we talked about his new “electronic skin” – a patch that can be applied like a temporary tattoo, that monitor heartbeats and brain activity, and that flexes and bends without breaking. We talked about his curved camera, inspired by the human eye. We spoke about his flexible medical sensors that can mould to the contours of a beating heart or the fissures of a human brain. We chatted about the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson prize that he had won for his inventions.
I tell you all this because I want you to understand that when John Rogers says his team’s new invention is “some of our best stuff ever”, he’s not speaking lightly.
Rogers has now created a line of “transient electronics”, which last for a specified amount of time before completely dissolving away. Having made his name by taking rigid and brittle electronics and making them flexible and bendy, he has now flipped durability on its head too. Electronics are typically engineered to last as long as possible, but Rogers wants to create machines that will disintegrate after a given time. And his team have already shown how this disappearing tech could be used to make medical implants that are absorbed by the body after their work is done.
Medical implants are an obvious application, and the one that led them down this road in the first place. They have already been working on flexible sensors that can be implanted into the brain and heart, to monitor for signs of epilepsy or heart attacks. “The thing you bump up against is how to get these things to survive in the body for a long time without adverse effects,” says Rogers. “One way to deal with that problem is to move around it. A lot of these implants don’t need to last forever.”