The average lifespan of a mobile phone is about 12 to 18 months, depending on your chosen service provider. But what if instead of discarding your outdated model, the device could simply self-destruct, reducing landfill e-waste and airborne toxins?
That is what researchers at the University of Illinois are working on.
Professor John Rogers is a materials science engineer and chemist at the University of Illinois. He showed us what they can already do: “This is an example of a transient integrated circuit. It’s a simple radio circuit. It involves transistors, some diodes, resistor lines, capacitors, conductors. It’s all built on a thin film of silk, which is a naturally occurring material.”
‘Transient electronics’ means bio-compatible devices that just disappear or dissolve at the end of their useful life without posing a threat to the environment.
The self-destructing microchip made of natural fibres is part of a project called ‘Born to Die’.
“They are born to die, but born to die in a very controlled way. So we’re not talking about unreliable, flaky electronics. We’re talking about electronics that are very specifically engineered to have excellent properties, time independent, until the programmed moment at which you don’t need the device any more and then it dissolves away. That’s the trick,” added Professor Rogers.
Of course it is a huge jump leap from creating a small vanishing chip, to equally soluble motherboards capable of driving the sophisticated electronics we use every day. But Rogers argues that this is the direction to go.
“If you could make key components or eventually the entire mobile phone out of materials that would last for three, five years and then naturally dissolve, that would be ideal,” he concluded.
The research team is also studying the potential use for such devices in the military and medical care, as well as this technology’s benefits for people and the planet.
The evolution of self-destructing devices could be revolutionary. In the US in 2010 alone, about 150 million used phones were dumped into landfills.
Every year 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated worldwide