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New U.S. Military Chip Self Destructs on Command

A chip that can shatter upon command could safeguard U.S. military data and devices on future battlefields

2 min read
New U.S. Military Chip Self Destructs on Command
Image: Xerox PARC/IDG

A new chip built on strained glass can shatter within 10 seconds when remotely triggered. It’s not quite as fast as the fictional Mission: Impossible messages that self-destruct in five seconds, but such vanishing electronics could prove tremendously useful for the U.S. military and corporations by keeping data secure and out of unwanted hands.

The new chip was developed by Xerox PARC for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and went on display at a DARPA technology forum last week, according to the IDG News ServiceEngineers fabricated the chip on Corning Gorilla Glass, the material used in the displays of many smartphones. But it’s a strained version of the glass that makes it susceptible to heat. A self-destruct circuit triggered by laser light activates a resistor that heats the chip to the point of shattering into many tiny fragments.

A chip of this type represents a potentially big step forward for DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources initiative. That program previously awarded a $3.45 million contract to IBM for the purpose of creating a similar self-destructing chip made on “strained glass substrates,” according to Information Week. DARPA’s goal for the program goes as follows:

The Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program seeks electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner. These transient electronics should have performance comparable to commercial-off-the-shelf electronics, but with limited device persistence that can be programmed, adjusted in real-time, triggered, and/or be sensitive to the deployment environment.

The recent chip demonstration relied upon the laser triggering a photo diode, which switched on the self-destruct circuit. Previous research by the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology has also considered using a tiny resistor heater that could cause critical circuits to self-destruct to prevent reverse-engineering. But IDG News Service pointed out that future versions of the chip could use mechanical switches or radio signals as triggers.

The broader idea of vanishing or transient electronics has promise beyond battlefields or data security. On the health and medical side, John Rogers, a materials science professor at the University of Illinois, has developed a wide variety of biodegradable electronics and sensors that are compatible with both the human skin and body organs.

Electronics capable of dissolving into relatively harmless components could also eventually begin to reduce the huge “e-waste” problem of used and broken electronics being dumped in the developing world.

The DARPA initiative might eventually benefit those broader applications as well. But the latest Xerox PARC demonstration suggests a deliberately controlled, self-destructing chip that wouldn’t simply wait to slowly dissolve in the open environment or in the human body. 

The Conversation (0)

Why Functional Programming Should Be the Future of Software Development

It’s hard to learn, but your code will produce fewer nasty surprises

11 min read
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A plate of spaghetti made from code
Shira Inbar
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You’d expectthe longest and most costly phase in the lifecycle of a software product to be the initial development of the system, when all those great features are first imagined and then created. In fact, the hardest part comes later, during the maintenance phase. That’s when programmers pay the price for the shortcuts they took during development.

So why did they take shortcuts? Maybe they didn’t realize that they were cutting any corners. Only when their code was deployed and exercised by a lot of users did its hidden flaws come to light. And maybe the developers were rushed. Time-to-market pressures would almost guarantee that their software will contain more bugs than it would otherwise.

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