A team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Tufts University has developed a process for building fully-functional circuit boards that dissolve in water, opening the way for new types of medical implants, according to a paper published in Science today. Combining silicon with magnesium to create the conductive circuits, the scientists encase them in a special type of silk which offers a controlled rate of degradation. Depending on how the outer layer is treated, the devices can last anywhere between minutes and a number of years.

The research is being led by John Rogers, a materials scientist, and Fiorenzo Omenetto, a biomedical engineer — so far, the two have tested the procedure by implanting a small sensor in the body of a rat, allowing them to monitor the incision for bacteria. Other creations include a basic, 64-pixel imaging device, a temperature sensor, and a working solar cell. Medical applications aside, the technique could also prove useful in the wake of environmental disasters, allowing scientists to deploy thousands of small, non-intrusive sensors to monitor progress. The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the team is currently working to scale the process up to mass-production levels.