Remote destruction capability of high performance silicon electronics

(Nanowerk Spotlight) You surely remember one of the hallmarks of the Mission: Impossible series that shows a secret agent receiving his instructions on a tape or other device that then self-destructs and goes up in a cloud of smoke.
Actually, the military is actively working on creating such self-destructing – transient – electronics. DARPA's 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."
Getting pretty close to this Hollywood scenario, minus the smoke, scientists now have demonstrated remote destruction capability of high performance silicon electronics. They also show that in case of tempering, dislocation, or light exposure, electronics on for instance stolen or lost hard drives can self-destruct.
"Compared to previous attempts, which are inherently slow, need a supply of stored chemicals, and have compromised performance, our process is based on merging Joule Heating effect based physics with expendable polymer chemistry," Muhammad Mustafa Hussain, an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), tells Nanowerk. "Ours is a novel approach towards physical transient electronics based on the thermal expansion of expandable materials to destroy electronics in a very short time."
Structure of an integrated destructible electronic device
Structure of the KAUST team's integrated destructible device. (Reprinted with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag)
This work, reported in Advanced Materials Technologies ("Expandable Polymer Enabled Wirelessly Destructible High-Performance Solid State Electronics") is a pragmatic avenue towards implementing a destruction mechanism in electronic products.
The researchers showed that joule heating effect induced thermal expansion and the stress gradient between the thermally expandable advanced polymeric material and flexible bulk mono-crystalline silicon (100) can be employed to destroy high performance solid state electronics as needed and in under 10 seconds.
They also demonstrated that their approach can be integrated with the most commonly used silicon substrate in the electronics industry that are used for mobile phones, sim cards and hard disks.
The number of hardware thefts is increasing every year. According to Consumer Reports, the number of smartphone thefts nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013, affecting 3.1 million U.S. users in 2013. More than half of the respondents to the 2010 BSI Computer Theft Survey were victims of laptop theft. These security thefts cause billions of dollars in losses and millions of dollars are spent developing various hardware and software based techniques to prevent these thefts.
Software-based methods such as passwords and data encryption are not yet completely foolproof and reliable. Furthermore, law enforcement and customs agents could force a user to reveal their passwords. The ultimate and completely foolproof method to prevent any information theft or unauthorized access is the on-demand complete destruction of the electronics in a stolen, misplaced or hacked device.
"This motivated us to work towards developing a destructible electronics system that is compatible with current state-of the-art high performance CMOS chips and can revolutionize today's highly secure military applications that may need to self-destruct on command within seconds," note Abdurrahman Gumus and Arsalan Alam, who co-first authored the paper. "Moreover, instead of a complete destruction of all electronics, we were also interested in on-demand only partial destruction, for example, only the memory areas of the laptop to prevent data theft."
Destruction of a single silicon chip on demand
a) Destruction of a single silicon chip on demand. b-d) Demonstration of modular destruction of a chip. Resistors were destructed sequentially on demand. e) Another demonstration of modular destruction. Selective destruction of electrical connections caused to turn off the LEDs independently. (Reprinted with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag) (click on image to enlarge)
"Although, a few works have been previously reported under physical transient electronics, none are as pragmatic and fast as our destruction mechanism," they add.
Researchers already have reported various methods to develop transient electronics. One method is submerging electronics in their respective dissolvable solutions (see: "Transient electronics that fight disease and then dissolve away (w/video)" and "Toward dissolvable electronics for implants and sensors").
Another method is destroying electronics using microfluidics as chemical etchants (see for instance: "Mission possible: This device will self-destruct when heated (w/video)").
And Xerox's PARC has recently demonstrated a method allowing complete destruction within 10 seconds where a chip is fabricated on strained glass that can shatter after remotely triggered with laser light.
A smartphone based operation of remotely destructible electronics. An app controls the operation where the destruction command can be remotely activated using a smartphone. After entering a desired password, a chip is destroyed on demand. (Video: Integrated Nanotechnology Laboratory, KAUST)
"Although most of the current transient electronic approaches focus on polymeric and biologically-derived materials, they have limitations such as thermal instability and inherent low carrier mobility," explains Hussain. "Developing CMOS-based transient electronic systems is important where performance is a crucial criteria such as in security and defense applications. CMOS technology can also be integrated with commonly known fabrication techniques and with ultra-large-scale-integration densities."
The next stage in the team's efforts will be to demonstrate the destruction mechanism in commercial state-of-the-art electronic devices. Moreover, they will also strive to further reduce the destruction time to a few seconds.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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