Medical implants used today are limited in use and scope to pacemakers and devices to help restore hearing. However, in the future, these devices may feature reconfigurable electronic platforms that can change in shape and size dynamically or relocate from one body area to another thanks to new research.

A team of scientists from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and the University of California (UC) Berkeley have developed a silicon-based reconfigurable electronic platform in a honeycomb-serpentine structure that researchers said can dynamically morph into three different shapes.

Implantable devices, nature-inspired reconfigurable electronic platform, next-generation medical implants, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, University of California
A group of researchers from University of California (UC) Berkeley reports a silicon honeycomb-serpentine reconfigurable electronic platform that can dynamically morph into three different shapes for reconfigurable electronic devices. This image shows its various shapes: (a) the serpentine-honeycomb reconfigurable platform; (b) the design with the eight reconfiguring nodes highlighted; (c) The irregular configuration; (d) the quatrefoil configuration; and (e) the star configuration. (Source: UC Berkeley)

These shapes–quatrefoils (four lobes), stars, and irregular ones—can each serve a different design purpose, said Muhammad Hussain, a visiting professor at the UC Berkeley who led the research.

“Quatrefoils can be used for rectangular object-based operation, while stars are for more intricate architectures, and irregular-shaped ones are specifically for implanted bioelectronics,” he said in a press statement.

The platform enables the development of reconfigurable electronic devices that can move while performing tasks inside the body, Hussain told Design News. Hussain also is a professor of electrical engineering at King Abdullah University

“Shape-changing electronics can provide robotic mobility, and we intend to harness that functionality for implantable electronics applications,” he told us.

Nature-Inspired Design

Hussain cited one example of a new device that can be developed using the platform–a sleeve for the heart that can pump the organ when needed by repeated contraction and expansion.

Indeed, the platform paves the way for the design of myriad new flexible electronics that can be used drug delivery, health monitoring, diagnosis, therapeutic healing, implants, and soft robotics, researchers said.

Researchers found inspiration in nature—specifically, how flowers bloom—for the honeycomb-shaped platform they developed. Key to the design is its stress distribution, which is integral to developing flexible electronics that can deform without affecting performance or viability, Hussain said.

“We design them in such ways that they can contract and expand to change their shapes,” he said of the reconfigurable devices the team envisions.

Flexible Design for Complex Monitoring

Indeed, reconfigurable electronics must be able to withstand physical deformation, such as stretching, bending, folding, or twisting to morph successfully into another shape.

“Imagine that a lab-on-chip platform is implanted within your body to monitor the growth of a tumor in the shoulder area,” Hussain said in the press statement. “While it is implanted, if we observe some abnormality in lung function, a platform that is equipped enough can change its shape and size, and relocate or expand to go monitor lung function.”

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

The team underwent significant challenges while developing their platform, including its choice of materials to realize optimal stress management, mobility, and preservation of electrical functionality, Hussain told Design News.

Researchers still have “a long way to go” to realize fully their vision for reconfigurable electronics for medical implants, he added. Particularly, they still aim to integrate soft robotics with embedded high-performance flexible complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) electronics on a variety of reconfigurable electronic platforms, Hussain said.

“It offers wonderful engineering challenges, requires true multidisciplinary efforts and has the ability to bind a variety of disciplines into applications that are simply not possible with the existing electronics infrastructure,” he said in the press statement.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.