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Self-destructing batteries could change recycling, medical implants, even war

The concept of self-destructing technology takes the inherent consumption at the heart of consumer electronics and brings it to the forefront. There’s something many people find almost distasteful about tech that’s designed to destroy itself — even if the timeline for that destruction is longer than the device could realistically last. Nonetheless, the idea of self-destructing technology is immediately applicable to problems of waste disposal, and further out than that, the ability to have a device or device component literally melt away could end up changing the abilities of a number of industries and even warfare. This week, researchers at Iowa State University got a lot closer to that goal with a new transient battery that could power self-destructing electronics.

Their achievement is important for two reasons. One, it increases the usefulness of self-destructing batteries by doubling their voltage to about 2.5 volts — more than the voltage of a AA or AAA battery. Two, this new battery dramatically decreases the time it takes to actually dissolve away, validating the concept from a pure practicality standpoint. If the technology is ever to succeed, it will need to be useful to the consumer while offering an accessible improvement when it comes time for cleanup. This battery is a step toward both goals.

Low batterySo far, it can power a “desktop calculator” for about 15 minutes — and while that might not sound like the most impressive thing the world, a calculator is a real, useful device being powered by a battery that can simply disappear. More to the point, large and energy-hungry devices like a computer often include crucial, low-power bottlenecks to keep running properly. Right now, many such components run off main power or have little watch batteries powering them — these could one-day fall to “transient” batteries like this.

The battery is only about a millimeter thick, smaller than a postage stamp. Nano- and micro-particles of lithium salts and silver make up the battery’s version of electrodes, held in a water-soluble polymer. When exposed to water for just 30 minute, this breaks down and the micro-particles disburse. It’s surprising that there’s no mention of a cleanup process to precipitate this battery dust out of a sample of water; in its current form, you’d have a hard time selling the concept of washing your battery down the drain, or of dumping millions of these batteries straight into the oceans.

There are other reasons you might want a battery to self-destruct, however. One application is in biomedical science — most implants aren’t meant for eternal use, and even those that are intended to be permanent can’t actually achieve that goal. Getting implants out is almost as big a problem as getting them in, but it wouldn’t be if an implant could be broken down by the body. That process might have been ongoing from the instant the implant entered the body, slowly eating through a polymer coating like fire burning down a fuse, or it could be triggered suddenly in response to a signal from doctors.

There are other possible applications, as well. Government and military technology is often designed so that it is difficult or impossible to be useful to unintended recipients — the overall quest for DARPA is called Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR). VAPR is aimed at deploying entire devices that can be disappeared (or made into paperweights) at will, from advanced weaponry to government smartphones. This could not only reduce the ecological and human rights footprint in an area — think unexploded munitions that naturally disarm themselves and melt away — but also change the strategic usefulness of some of the military’s most advanced tech.

Imagine if the highly computerized weapons systems captured by the Islamic State, things like aircraft tracking equipment and advanced artillery, were just a button-push from obsolescence. Knowing that ability was available might change the calculus in providing military assistance around the world. No longer would it be necessary to hold back on providing technology for fear of who will end up using it. The question would instead be: Will the people we want to have this technology be able to hold onto it long enough for the investment to be worth it, or will we just have to destroy our own equipment so quickly that the gift was a big waste of resources?

self destructing battery head

Of course, a lot of these applications beg for timers, rather than triggers . Something either will degrade over time, or will degrade in the the absence of a don’t-degrade signal provided by the US military — inherently a more difficult thing to control, and harder to entrust your life to. Sorry solider, your rifle stopped firing because you got the one-per-hundred-thousand units in which the kill-switch degrades and “flips” the gun off faster than it’s supposed to. Your gun wasn’t supposed to break for another six months; whoops!

It’s a bit early to be forecasting such applications. But batteries can perform such crucial functions that the ability to depower even a very very small battery within a device opens up a world of possibilities for device control.

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