DARPA's New "Transient Electronics" are Right Out of a Spy Novel

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Don't worry if you've never heard of "transient electronics."

They're so new, most investors have no idea what the field is all about.

But these new cutting-edge devices could find a wide range of uses in the very near future.

See, they're tailor made for things like implants in the human body. Ditto for sensors needed to check on the environment.

The fact is, uses for transient electronics seem almost endless.

And that includes spy cameras that can disappear…

That's right, a U.S. research team said they have built a working digital camera that dissolves over time. But, under terms of the secret contract, they couldn't divulge any more details about that new gadget.

But here's the thing. A somewhat shadowy arm of the Pentagon funded the research that recently led to this transient electronics breakthrough.

It's called DARPA. It's shorthand for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Founded in 1958 to pursue and develop new cutting edge-technology for the Pentagon, DARPA presents itself as "100 geniuses connected by a travel agent."

Officials at DARPA foresee lots of applications for this new technology, from devices that can help ward off disease to those that can gather data on the enemy.

This is exactly the type of technology I'm talking about when I say we are living in the Era of Radical Change.

Complex Devices Designed to Disappear

Let's face it, if I had told you 10 years ago your doctor would be able to put a camera in your body that later dissolved on its own, odds are you would have laughed me out of the room.

But in the very near future, complex devices designed to self-destruct will no longer be the stuff of science fiction. They will become science fact.

Indeed, experts in the field already use the terms "transient electronics" and "biodegradable technology" as one and the same.

That's because this new generation of gadgets breaks down over time in "bio-fluids," which includes those in the human body.

Of course, there's a strong sense of irony about this new advance.

Turns out the whole field depends on a substance we've used for thousands of years — silk.

Team members found they could control the life span of the devices by simply changing the crystalline structure of the silk "wrapper" they used. Doing so affected the degree to which liquids like water can attack it.

This means they can "program" the silk to break down in just a few minutes (highly "transient"), or over many months. Or even a few years, for that matter.

Team members built the devices using magnesium and silicon. Turns out these are not toxic to humans but are too large to break down quickly in standard sizes. For instance, a piece of silicon the size of a computer chip would take 1,000 years to dissolve.

The team included a group from the University of Illinois who worked with scientists from Tufts and Northwestern universities. They published their findings in a recent issue of Science magazine.

"It's a new concept, so there are lots of opportunities, many of which we probably have not even identified yet" said team leader John A. Rogers. "We're very excited. These findings open up entirely new areas of application, and associated directions for research in electronics."

The Bold New Future of Transient Electronics

Rogers and his cohorts cite three key categories that seem particularly suited for transient electronics. They are:

  • Medical implants. These could perform key diagnostic or therapeutic functions for a useful amount of time and then simply dissolve in the body. Such items could include stents for blood vessels, sutures and drug delivery packs.
  • Environmental monitors. Crews would dispense these wireless sensors after a chemical spill. In turn, the sensors would degrade over time to avoid any impact on the environment.
  • Consumer electronics. These include both systems and sub-components. Think of them as "green" gadgets because they reduce the impact on the environment. Team members cite such items as cell phones and other small devices that go through frequent upgrades.

And talk about a rich list of devices. Besides the vanishing camera, the team has already made such things as transistors, diodes, sensors, wireless power coils, solar cells, and antennas.

"The different applications that we are considering require different operating time frames," Rogers said, adding that an implant used in your body might need to last for just a few weeks.

"But for a consumer electronic device, you'd want it to stick around at least for a year or two. The ability to use materials science to engineer those time frames becomes a critical aspect in design."

To date, they have proved that these new gadgets will work with rats, which are often used for animal testing. You can see a picture of a rat getting an integrated circuit implant here.

Let me close by noting we may be a few years from seeing this new generation of devices out in the field. Putting new electronics in humans usually requires federal approval.

But I have no doubt this new tech — or something like it — will in fact make it to market. Like I keep saying, high tech in the Era of Radical Change will have a huge impact on our lives and the world around us.

No doubt that's going to include electronics that can vanish before your eyes.

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About the Author

Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.

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  1. LeMoyn Wolfe | October 12, 2012

    Michael .I heard about this back in 2003 at Financial planning seminar i attended in Scottsdale Arizona .Pretty wild how they watch you every day , everywhere .and everybody thought that George Orwells 1984 was out there.Always enjoy your cutting edge articles Especially the ones about how small things are getting.Have a GREAT Weekend LeMoyn Wolfe

  2. James Gold | December 29, 2013

    I found your article very interesting and I would like to like to follow up on your research and any other test or material you have at this time.
    Thank You,
    James

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