Imagine a medical delivery system that can dissolve in a patient’s body once its mission is complete.

A team from the University of Houston, along with researchers from China, have created a new wave of eco-friendly disposable personal electronics that can be dissolved through exposure to water molecules in the atmosphere and biomedical implants that can be dissolved within the body.

“We demonstrate that polymeric substrates with novel degradation kinetics and associated transience chemistry offer a feasible strategy to construct physically transient electronics,” the researchers wrote. “Through the manipulation of the polymer component and environmental humidity, the progress of hydrolyzing polyanhydrides can be managed and thus the dissolution kinetics of [a] functional device can be controlled.”

The researchers built functional electronic components through additive processes onto a film made of the polymer polyanhydride. The device remained stable until ambient moisture triggered a chemical breakdown that digested the inorganic electronic materials and components.

Traditionally, to produce physically transient electronics, researchers would need to completely immerse a device in aqueous corrosive solutions or biofluids. However, the research team demonstrated a new working mechanism—dissolution triggered by ambient moisture.

This enabled the researchers to precisely control the transient period, so a biomedical implant could be programmed to disappear when the intended medication is delivered.

They tested several compounds including aluminum, copper, nickel indium-gallium, zinc oxide and magnesium oxide and developed several electronic devices using this technology, including resistors, capacitors, antennas, transistors, diodes, photo sensors and others.

Along with creating a new medicine delivery system, the new technique could enable consumers to dissolve their old and no longer useful electronic devices.

The researchers also said the technology could have defense applications, including for devices that can be programmed to dissolve in order to safeguard sensitive information.