Electronics That Can Melt in Your Body Could Change the World of Medicine- page 7 | Innovation | Smithsonian
(Timothy Archibald)

Electronics That Can Melt in Your Body Could Change the World of Medicine

John Rogers, a revolutionary materials scientist, is pushing the boundaries of the medical world

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Rogers, who has a government security clearance, says that Darpa wants him to remain mum about specific military apps. “But you can imagine,” he says. I didn’t have to. A January 2013 news release on Darpa’s website is explicit about the aims of the “Vanishing Programmable Resources” program, which underwrote Rogers’ research: The agency is looking for ways to deal with the radios, phones, remote sensors and other sophisticated electronics that wind up “scattered across the battlefield” after U.S. military operations. If captured by the enemy, this e-waste could “compromise DoD’s strategic technological advantage.

“What if these electronics simply disappeared when no longer needed?” the release says.

No doubt Q—the British secret service’s lab chief in the 007 films—would be impressed. Rogers, for his part, seems plenty jazzed about the applications he can talk about. He and his colleagues imagine sensors that track oil spills for a preset period and then melt into seawater, and cellphones with nontoxic circuits that biodegrade rather than poison landfills—and leave behind no memory cards for snoops to harvest for personal data. They also see a chest of medical devices: “smart stents” that report on how well an artery is healing; a pump that titrates medicine into hard-to-reach tissue; “electro­ceuticals” that fight pain with electrical pulses rather than drugs.

One benefit of “transience” in temporary medical implants is that it would spare patients the cost, hassle and health risks of a second surgery to retrieve the devices. But Rogers says the goal is less to replace existing in vivo technology—like pacemakers, cochlear implants or deep brain stimulators—than to bring electronics where they’ve never been before.

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Not long ago, Rogers flew with his extended family to Malta, where his brother works as a video game designer. Rogers had spotted some flounder while snorkeling, and in the taxi from the beach to his brother’s house, his mother, Pattiann, the poet, marveled at the evolution of fish with eyes on their backs. “The various ways life has found to survive,” she said to her son, steering the conversation in a mystical direction. “Why is that?”

Her son was just as curious about the flounder, but for reasons that had little to do with metaphysics.

“It’s not the why,” he told her. "It's the how: How did they do it."

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