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A team of Italian researchers is using decal technology to make a new generation of edible electronics.

Charlie Heller
February 07, 2018

In what could be the greatest edible innovation out of Italy since pizza, a team of scientists from the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa has made strides in the development of electronics you can safely eat.

The MIT Technology Review says it could be the beginning of "a new generation of edible electronics." How does it work? It actually uses a technology you're already familiar with—the same technology behind temporary tattoos—to imprint circuits onto edible objects, like fruit.

The transferable tattoo technology (which is also that of decal stickers) normally works like so: an image is printed onto a thin film of ethyl cellulose polymer. That film is stuck to a sheet of paper by a (very metal-sounding) "sacrificial layer" of water-soluble starch or dextrin. When you put the decal in water, the "sacrificial layer" dissolves, allowing the printed film to stick to objects ranging from your laptop to your own skin.

What the IIT team has figured out, though, is how to use inkjet printing to print organic electronic components onto those decals, which they can then transfer onto pills, fruit, and other things you can safely ingest.

While edible electronics aren't totally new, previous versions have been silicon-based, and often placed inside pills, making them expensive and limiting potential applications.

Since the ethylcellulose film the circuits are printed on is biocompatible (it's already used as an edible coating on pills), the printing technique could open up a range of new possibilities for, the researchers tell MIT, "the integration of fully printed organic circuitry on food and pharmaceutical drugs."

So what does all this mean for you? Think: Circuits built into fruit or other perishable foods that monitor their ripeness, that deliver drugs in specific circumstances from inside the body, or that monitor internal body metrics in the digestive tract—sort of like an internal FitBit. Sure, means of powering the devices with an equally digestible battery are still being worked out, but the future of edible computing just got one big step closer.