Transient Electronics and Planned Obsolescence

Jonathan Strickland

Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

This morning, I spotted an article over at Phys.Org about how presenters at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society discussed a special class of electronic devices -- ones that dissolve after a given amount of time. Think of a non-explosive version of Inspector Gadget's self-destructing messages from Chief Quimby.

Electronics that can dissolve into non-toxic compounds could be very useful in medical applications. Such a device could help a patient manage symptoms or even fight off infections. Over time, the device would break down and the patient's body would absorb the harmless chemical leftovers. There's no need to perform another surgery to remove the gadgets.

It's a small step toward the science-fiction future in which nano-sized particles tag team with our immune system to protect us from disease and injury. Perhaps one day a doctor will inject these particles into a patient to fight off cancer or heal injured tissue. We may even see a day when everyone gets these injections early in life and the particles act like nano-sized guardian angels inside our blood.

One other discussion point that came out of the conference worries me a bit. The researchers talked about another potential use for dissolving electronics -- they could melt away after a set amount of time in gadgets ranging from phones to tablets. The researchers talked about how this would reduce e-waste, which is a real problem. Electronics often have dangerous and toxic chemicals inside them -- disposing of unwanted gadgets is tricky. But if the components simply dissolved into harmless chemicals you wouldn't have to worry about finding a safe way to take out the trash.

The problem as I see it is that it forces the consumer to continuously upgrade electronics. Even if you're satisfied with an older gadget that meets your needs, you'll have to go out and buy the latest doodad once the guts of your smartphone melt away. And while I think less e-waste is a good thing, something tells me that the manufacturers will be thinking more about keeping people in a consumption cycle than about the health of our planet. Am I just being cynical?