Someday in the near future, you’ll have lots of technology living in your body, curing your illnesses, regrowing damaged nerves, and keeping things running smoothly. But, considering most of this technology is surgically implanted, what will we do when it’s done doing its job? What we need, according to new research published in Trends in Biotechnology, are edible electronics.

According to Christopher Bettinger of Carnegie Mellon University, these edible electronics would consist of electronic materials, such as circuits and batteries, that would be just as edible as the food and vitamins we ingest every day. He said that they’d be powered by charged ions that reside within our own digestive tracts. Once their job is completed, they’d dissolve into our bodies.

Though edible electronics sounds like something you wouldn’t see for 50 years, they’ve actually been around since the 1970s. In those days, researchers asked participants to swallow technology that measured temperature and other biomarkers. Today, there are sensors attached to drugs to see how well they dissolve within the body, as well as cameras that are used in gastrointestinal surgeries. These technologies, however, cannot be labeled as edible electronics, since there is an inherent risk in swallowing them.

"The primary risk is the intrinsic toxicity of these materials. For example, if the battery gets mechanically lodged in the gastrointestinal tract — but that's a known risk. In fact, there is very little unknown risk in these kinds of devices," Bettinger said in a press release.

Because the breakfast you eat in the morning only stays in your gastrointestinal tract for about 20 hours, the edible electronics you ingest would work for about the same amount of time before dissolving, Bettinger said. He also said noted that current edible electronics contain over-the-counter batteries like those found in your watch. The key to making truly edible electronics would be to create a segmented battery that can use the natural liquids within the body to provide it with juice. Electronics built using this method have lasted two to three months.

Edible electronics will be hitting the market sooner than you think. One of them, which is already approved by the FDA, is called the Ingestion Event Marker. It provides digital feedback on health and is designed to improve patients’ health habits and their connections to caregivers.

The electronics may also prove more cost effective, as traditional pills cost so much because only a small part of a pill makes it to its destination in the body. “If we can engineer devices that get the most mileage out of existing drugs, then that is a very attractive value proposition,” Bettinger said. “I believe these devices can be tested in patients within the next five to 10 years."

Source: Bettinger, C. Materials Advances for Next-Generation Ingestible Electronic Medical Devices. Trends in Biotechnology. 2015.