Bao, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering, had previously created
a stretchable electrode modeled on human skin. That material could bend and twist in a way that could allow it to interface with the skin or brain, but it couldn’t degrade. That limited its application for implantable devices and – important to Bao – contributed to waste.
Bao said that creating a robust material that is both a good electrical conductor and biodegradable was a challenge, considering traditional polymer chemistry. “We have been trying to think how we can achieve both great electronic property but also have the biodegradability,” Bao said.
Eventually, the team found that by tweaking the chemical structure of the flexible material it would break apart under mild stressors. “We came up with an idea of making these molecules using a special type of chemical linkage that can retain the ability for the electron to smoothly transport along the molecule,” Bao said. “But also this chemical bond is sensitive to weak acid – even weaker than pure vinegar.” The result was a material that could carry an electronic signal but break down without requiring extreme measures.
In addition to the biodegradable polymer, the team developed a new type of electrical component and a substrate material that attaches to the entire electronic component. Electronic components are usually made of gold. But for this device, the researchers crafted components from iron. Bao noted that iron is a very environmentally friendly product and is nontoxic to humans.
The researchers created the substrate, which carries the electronic circuit and the polymer, from cellulose. Cellulose is the same substance that makes up paper. But unlike paper, the team altered cellulose fibers so the “paper” is transparent and flexible, while still breaking down easily. The thin film substrate allows the electronics to be worn on the skin or even implanted inside the body.