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18 July 2017

New Electronics to Self-Destruct below Room Temperature

Professor Leon Bellan of Vanderbilt University is in the process of developing a new form of electrical circuitry that has the ability to self-destruct when exposed to temperatures below 32°C. Working in collaboration with mechanical engineering graduate student Xin Zhang, the circuitry will have far-reaching potential if the duo is able to perfect it.

Img: Vanderbilt University
The technology was first developed through the use of a cotton candy machine of all things. When a specially-designed polymer was run through the machine, it formed a system of threads that can be likened to blood capillaries, and this structure allows it to function as a vascular system for artificial organs. Bellan saw the triggering system for dissolving the polymer – cooling it – as a potential function for use in self-destructing electronics, and so embedded silver nanowires into the polymer to recreate this.

Although a device that eliminates itself when the temperature drops may not sound extremely effective, it has many uses. Bellan identifies an RFID wireless tag as one of them:

“You could implant important information in a person, and body temperature would keep it intact. If the tag were removed or the bearer died, it would dissolve.”

Circuitry of this nature would be hugely beneficial to scientists and engineers, with its practical application useful for both the military and the medical industry. For example, doctors could create implants that would be able to be destroyed when they’re no longer required, rather than having to surgically remove them. Current electronics can only self-destruct when exposed to a substance like water or acid, which is not useful in such instances.

Right now, the technology is only advanced enough to produce a simple LED lighting circuit that works in a beaker of water when heated via a hot plate. As soon as the heat is removed and the water cools down, the polymer dissolves and the circuit is broken. The plan now is to integrate semiconductors to form transistors that would allow for the device to be operated wirelessly.

Bellan is hopeful about the future of these self-destructive electronics.

“Transient electronics are cool, and once you start coupling that to a stimulus-responsive material, you start coming up with really sci-fi ideas. You could have any cascade of events that results in a very unique stimulus that causes it to degrade or prevent it from falling apart. Temperature is just the beginning.”

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.