The future of electronics? Stretchy, wearable ... flushable

How about a computer that could "melt into your skin, laminate onto your brain, or wrap around your heart"?

Kate Lunau is in Chicago covering the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where some of the world’s finest brains and the celebrities of science mix, mingle, and share their latest ideas. From Feb. 14 to 18, she’ll be blogging and tweeting from Chicago on some of the latest—and most exciting—research. Follow her @katelunau #AAASmtg

A small and speedy smartphone is one thingbut what about a computer that could “melt into your skin, laminate onto your brain, or wrap around your heart”?

John Rogers, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is working on electronics that can integrate into the body and are even water soluble. (In the future, maybe instead of tossing an outdated iPhone or Android, we’ll flush it.)

One of the biggest challenges is the classic design of the integrated circuit, built on a”completely rigid” silicon wafer, Rogers says. His team has found a way to reduce wafers to tiny, flexible “nanoribbons.” (He says it’s like comparing the rigidity of a plank of wood to the bend in a sheet of paper.) By bonding nanoribbons to stretchy rubber, his team can create electronics with “skin-like properties” — integrated into a temporary tattoo applied to the skin.

Rogers showed a video of one collaborator flying a mini-helicopter using only gestures, thanks to “tattoos” discreetly applied to his forearms. Attached to the forehead, the devices can read brainwaves. Rogers says the “tattoos” can be worn for about two weeks before the natural sloughing off of dead skin makes it time for them to come off.

In collaboration with Reebok, Rogers has created a skullcap with sensors to measure the head impacts in football players and other athletes. Clinical trials have started in partnership with Northwestern University,  he says, in which “smart bandages” keep track of wound healing. In the future, he thinks these devices could be used to monitor babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. In fact, he says, they could even be implanted inside the human body, wrapped around the heart or brain.

To that end, Rogers is developing silicon-based circuits that dissolve in water — useful not just in humans but also in the environment: monitors could be installed in forests, lakes or rivers, and melt when no longer of use.

Rogers says the devices are biocompatible, so much so that he once ate one — on a dare.