Imagine that you're an international spy carrying sensitive information. You're going to need better spy technology than invisible ink or codes. How about electronics that literally disappear into thin air when you need it to?
The above images show how the electronic components grandually dissolve in below 75% relative humidity [Photo by Gao et al., Sci. Adv. 2017;3: e1701222]
Researchers took advantage of how electronics react to humidity in order to create these disappearing devices. Humidity isn't kind to electronics. Keeping your laptop, for example, in humid conditions can mean that you'll be needing a new laptop sooner than usual. Humidity oxidizes the electronic parts, leading to degradation. Going on the same principle, researchers created an electronic device that will degrade much more quickly in humidity. The device degrades so quickly that it actually disappears.
The transient device that dissolves in water [Photo by the Beckman Institute, University of Illinois and Tufts University]
There have been other disappearing devices, called transient electronics, in the past. One example is the device that dissolves in an aqueous solution. However, you'd actually need an aqueous solution for that one. It's much easier to make an electronic device simply disappear into thin air.
This study details how the researchers were able to create their disappearing device. The researchers wanted to create a device that disappears in humid air much like how previous devices dissolved in water. A material called polymer polyanhydride degrades easily in humid environments, which meant that it was exactly the kind of material that the researchers were looking for.
The researchers then applied the polymer in thin films on electronic components. According to the findings, the electronic components work perfectly until exposed to humidity. As a plus, the researchers made it so they can program the device's self-destruct time frame. The device can thus stay intact for days, weeks, months, or even for an indefinite period of time.
Illustration of the electronics with the polymer [Photo by Gao et al., Sci. Adv. 2017;3: e1701222]
But what would you even use a device like this for? It certainly sounds like a piece of spy technology from a James Bond film. While yes, it can carry sensitive information and self-destruct before it falls into the wrong hands, it has other possible applications as well. For example, the device can deactivate bombs after a pre-programmed period of time, reducing the risks of active but unused bombs lying around where they can cause damage and harm. The device can also be instrumental in creating implants that won't require another round of surgery to remove.
Thus, it's not just spy technology. It's also the type of technology that can open up new possibilities and innovations. But, of course, we can't deny that it's also perfect for covert operations.
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