University professor earns award for “revolutionary” work

John A. Rogers, a University professor of materials science and engineering, is the recipient of this year’s Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Award for the category of physical sciences. The Smithsonian Magazine and Rogers’ colleagues have called his research in the past year “revolutionary.”

Rogers is responsible for a host of different inventions, many of which contribute to the medical industry. His most-noted brainchild this year is his research on flexible electronics. 

Turning his cell phone around in his hands, Rogers explained that the inner workings of a phone depend on a series of silicon chips. The silicon is a hard, rigid material, which is why the phone is also rigid.

“For a phone, this kind of geometry is fine,” Rogers said. “But if you want to take this kind of (electronic) functionality and use it to study the body or deliver electrical stimulation to the body … it’s not a very good shape because the body is soft and textured.”

While one of the solutions could have been to use stretchy plastics or rubbers for medical devices, silicon is still a much better conductor of electricity. Therefore, Rogers and his fellow researchers perfected ultra-thin silicon, changing the silicon material from rigid to stretchy, which better suits the body. Rogers’ ideas for how ultra-thin silicon can be used in medical devices are extensive.

“With a pacemaker, you just have one wire connecting into the tissue,” Rogers said. “But if you could wrap the whole heart with an integrated circuit, then you could pulse it and stimulate it in a much more complex and sophisticated way.”

Rogers is already implementing flexible electronics commercially. A company called MC10, founded by Rogers, worked with Reebok to release an electronic skullcap this past July. Athletes who play contact sports can wear the form-fitting skullcap under their helmets, and a stretchy electronic inside the cap can measure and record the physical severity of any hits to the head.

Besides flexible electronics, the American Ingenuity Award also recognizes Rogers for his development of medical devices that not only stretch and flex, but also dissolve. Rogers foresees this being useful, for example, for when medical devices are no longer needed in the body so that surgery won’t be necessary to retrieve it.

“We thought about whether there would be a set of materials that could go into the body, survive for a time period that’s relevant for its mode of use, but then once its job is done, then it would just dissolve away,” Rogers said.

Rogers’ colleagues affirm his innovation. Ralph Nuzzo, a University chemistry professor, has followed Rogers’ work since they worked at Bell Laboratories together in the 1990s. They are currently both interested in the area of flexible electronics.

“He’s got this very rare attribute,” Nuzzo said. “He’ll come up with an innovative idea and reduce it to a form of practice at the level of technology in a way that just blows your mind.”

Sanat Bhole is a first year master’s student who is part of the Rogers research group. He and other researchers are currently working daily in a lab to try and develop cancer-preventing, skin-mountable UV sensors based on Rogers’ flexible electronics technology.

“Rogers is infinitely responsible for formulating the ideas and the theories that we implement, whether it’s the actual process of how to fabricate something or the theories behind how a certain device will work,” Bhole said.

When asked for words of advice for aspiring inventors, Rogers suggests thinking big.

“Choose grand challenge levels to work on that you’re passionate about. Go for the big problems,” Rogers said. “The small problems will work themselves out.”

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