Self-Destructing Electronics Are on the Horizon

Researchers hope the "vanishing" tech will reduce the amount of toxic, electronic waste in landfills

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Anyone who has a collection of old cellphones sitting around in a drawer somewhere can appreciate the promise of new technology that could make electronics self-destruct once they become obsolete. To help turn that idea into a reality, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are designing chips printed on silk that can dissolve in water. If incorporated into actual consumer products one day, the technology could help reduce the amount of toxic electronic waste in landfills.

“You don’t need your cellphone to last for 25 or 50 years,” John Rogers, a professor of Materials Science and Engineering who is helming the “Born to Die” project, told the Associated Press. “You don’t want to keep it that long anyway.”

The ultimate goal is to create transient devices that physically disappear over time in a controlled process. While the effort is laudable, some say that concerns about electronic waste are overblown. A recent Washington Post story noted that the amount of lead from such devices that leaches into groundwater is negligible: “A 2008 study in Florida found that the increase in lead content of leachate — that nasty liquid at the bottom of the landfill pile — after adding electronic waste was statistically insignificant. In addition, modern landfills are reasonably efficient at removing lead from leachate,” the article noted.

Rogers’ team has yet to develop a prototype, but it has created a chip atop a thin film of silk that disappears when splashed with water. Watch the video above to see how it works and learn more about the research project.

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