Professors’ collaboration creates materials that self-destruct under natural triggers

By Victoria Snell

Imagine being able to get rid of old or broken cell phones by simply popping them into the oven.

Alternatively, imagine being able to recycle an old computer at the push of a button.

That’s what collaboration between groups led by aerospace engineering professor Scott White and materials science and engineering professor John Rogers have been working on since 2008.

White and his team have been developing new materials to make next generation electronics and other devices that can be programmed for destruction when they are no longer usable.

“They’re new materials, so there’s nothing out there in the industry that you could point to,” White said. “But they are polymers — so commodity plastics, all those sorts of things, are similar types of materials.”

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From a biomedical standpoint, Rogers said devices had originally been created to dissolve in liquids. For example, a piece of material could be inserted into the body and programmed to dissolve over time.

He said it was this idea that turned wheels for White and gave them the inspiration to expand the types of triggers that could be experimented with.

“I speculate that maybe some of the chemistries and some of the materials and mechanics concepts that they have developed in that (biomedical) context could be relevant for the opposite outcome,” Rogers said. “Instead of something that heals itself — something that destroys itself, so to speak.”

The materials could be programed with a sort of trigger for when the consumer determines the device is no longer of use to them. White also mentioned environmental triggers that could be considered.

“We look at devices that will destroy once they reach a certain temperature, or they are dosed with a certain wavelength of light — UV triggering,” he said. “But we look at environmental triggers that will lead to their destruction.”

Rogers explained that in some scenarios, such as in the desert, water might not be available. He said it is such cases that White is experimenting with other elements in the environment.

Devices could range from cell phones to car sensors, but Rogers also mentioned security systems.

“It can be useful from the standpoint of hardware level and security level — like military systems or industrial pieces of equipment in electronics,” Rogers said. “Or it can also be relevant for devices that are environmentally or biologically degradable.”

Rogers introduced White to Garda, a military corporation that has agreed to help fund White’s project. He said he has seen similar projects among other universities and companies as well.

While the project has produced promising results, White said there have been bumps along the road.

“This is a bit of a bizarre conundrum,” White said. “You’re trying to build a material that is unstable, but yet you want it to be stable until a critical condition is reached.”

White said because of this, during earlier stages of experiments, materials were destroying themselves very quickly and could not be used for a long enough period of time.

He said another current issue with self-destructing devices is the event in which destruction is triggered before the consumer wants it to happen.

However, White said his team has been working on an active-intervention idea, where the consumer is able to have more control over when a device destructs.

Rogers said people probably won’t see self-destructing or dissolving devices in the body anytime soon, but the idea of devices being used for military and technological purposes is moving forward rapidly.

White said he hopes to eventually find a way to harness the material once it has destructed in order to recycle it to create new devices.

The pair both agreed that each team has had its own strengths that have helped contribute to the success of self-destructing devices.

“This is just another example from the University of highly-interdisciplinary research and what can be accomplished when that happens,” White said. “This specific project involves aerospace engineering, chemistry, materials science and mechanical science and engineering — all coming together on one project, and when we did that, we made tremendous progress.”

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