Last updated February 2, 2018 at 8:55 am
These devices may be the stuff of a secret agent’s dreams, but they could be useful in day-to-day life, too.
It’s an innovation James Bond would be desperate to get his hands on. Scientists have created a device that can be vaporised, along with its data, should it fall into the wrong hands.
The ability to self-destruct is the main functionality of a class of devices called transient electronics. The critical circuits of these small devices can vanish along with the data they store and because no harmful by-products are released upon vaporisation they have many uses beyond espionage.
Several approaches are currently used to trigger the disintegration of devices, each with limitations.
In a new method, scientists have done away with the need to have external chemicals or power and can also trigger the destruction remotely.
A chain reaction of destruction
Scientists created a silicon-carbide microchip attached to a hard polycarbonate shell. There are microscopic cavities throughout the device that are filled with rubidium and sodium bifluoride. The chemicals work together in a chain reaction to obliterate the device.
Lead researcher, Ved Gund, from Cornell and Honeywell Aerospace said, “The encapsulated rubidium then oxidises vigorously, releasing heat to vaporize the polycarbonate shell and decompose the sodium bifluoride. The latter controllably releases hydrofluoric acid to etch away the electronics.”
The reaction can be activated remotely using radio waves that trigger the opening of the graphene-on-nitride valves keeping the chemicals contained in the microcavities.
Co-author of the study, Amit Lal, said the unique architecture offers several advantages over previously designed transient electronics, including the ability to scale the technology.
“The stackable architecture lets us make small, vaporisable, LEGO-like blocks to make arbitrarily large vanishing electronics,” said Lal.
An answer to e-waste?
Transient electronics have been proposed as a solution to our ever-growing pile of e-waste.
Instead of adding to the $50 million of e-waste generated every year, transient electronic devices would simply break down into harmless by-products.
Other suggested applications include short term medical implants that dissolve after a predetermined length of time eliminating the extra surgery required to remove them from the body.
Gund says the devices could be used for the dozens of electronic sensors deployed for environmental monitoring. Once they have finished monitoring, they would dissolve without a trace with zero harm to the environment.
“For example, vaporizable sensors can be deployed with the internet of things platform for monitoring crops or collecting data on nutrients and moisture, and then made to vanish once they accomplish these tasks,” said Gund.
The patent for the self-destructing chip is publicly available here.