Emerging Technology

DARPA aims to turn computer chips into dust

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded the second contract in a week for its program to develop electronics that will vanish or otherwise destruct on the battlefield.

The Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program aims to develop electronics that, when lost or left behind on the battlefield, can be destroyed either by a radioed command, an automated trigger that takes effect after a certain period of time or changes to its environment.

The latest contract, a $3.5 million award to IBM, focuses on one way devices could be destroyed. IBM will apply the property of “strained glass substrates” to be able to shatter CMOS chips into silicon and silicon dioxide powder, from which the chips are made, according to DARPA’s contract announcement. The device would include a fuse, reactive metal layer or other trigger that could be set off by a radio-frequency signal. “IBM will explore various schemes to enhance glass shattering and techniques to transfer this into the attached Si CMOS devices,” DARPA said.

CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) technology is used not only in the microprocessors in PCs and smartphones, but also in a variety of sensors, data converters and communications transceivers that are used on the battlefield — and which the military would not want to be accessible to the enemy if left behind.

Turning CMOS chips into dust is one way the VAPR program is exploring in its quest to develop self-destructing electronics. Other potential methods include electronics that could essentially melt, in a similar way to the biocompatible electronics being developed for medical procedures.

About a week before the IBM contract award, DARPA awarded BAE Systems Advanced Technologies a $4.5 million contract for developing electronics that perform like commercial products but have what DARPA calls “limited device persistence.”

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