This Battery Will Self-Destruct in 30 Minutes

Researchers are working to build devices that perform a function, then completely disappear.

Vocabulary: transient electronics, lithium-ion battery, anode, cathode, electrolytes

NGSS: PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer (NRC Framework 124–125)

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.4, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11–12.4

If you’re a fan of the Mission Impossible film franchise, then you’re familiar with one of the spy movie’s classic tropes: the self-destructing secret message. As researchers in the emerging field of “transient electronics” know, it’s not so easy to build a true self-destructing device — one that can perform a function and then, when triggered by light, heat, or liquid, completely disappears. But a group of researchers from Iowa State University have had some success. They’ve developed the first self-destructing, lithium-ion battery capable of delivering 2.5 volts — enough to power a desktop calculator for about 15 minutes. The battery’s polymer casing dissolves in 30 minutes when dropped in water.
 Reza Montazami, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University and lead researcher on the project, discusses the implications of a successful self-destructing battery on the future of transient electronics.

Audio “This Battery Will Self-Destruct in 30 Minutes” Aug. 12, 2016. (Original Segment Page)

Print this segment transcript.

Questions for Students

  • Based on the interview, create a definition for transient electronics.
  • Reza Montazami introduced the use of transient electronics in a glider or airplane that delivers packages. Evaluate this use. What are the possible benefits and drawback of delivery systems that self-destruct?
  • Some of the components of the lithium-ion battery that dissolves are not water soluble. Describe what happens to them and why this might present a larger concern about the use of these self-destructing devices.
  • Brainstorm other applications for transient electronics. How could they benefit society?

Activity Ideas

  • Ira flatow and Reza Montazami discuss future developments of transient electronic devices for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which might raise questions about how this technology should and will be used in the future. Have students engage in a discussion or writing assignment focused on technological advances and the ethics surrounds their use.
  • Using the Iowa State University lithium-ion battery and the design for a biodegradable drone as inspiration, have students design a device that is designed to completely degrade/dissolve/breakdown. Use a regular battery as a stand-in for the self-destructive battery that is in development by teams like that let by Reza Montazami.