Losing a flash drive full of family photos is unfortunate; losing an encryption key that gives access to sensitive data could be a catastrophe. So researchers at Xerox’s PARC have developed chips that can self-destruct on command, making them completely unusable once they shatter.
The key to making chips that can just shatter into a million pieces on command is using a material that’s best known for shattering: glass. In this case, the researchers started with Corning’s Gorilla Glass, but modified it to become tempered glass under extreme stress.
For demos at a recent DARPA event held in St. Louis (they fund all the coolest stuff) a small resistor at the bottom of the chip was used as the self-destruct mechanism. When heated by a laser, the entire chip would immediately shatter due to all of the invisible stress on it surface. But the smaller bits would actually keep on shattering after the initial explosion leaving nothing but a pile of unrecognizable dust behind.
Exploding chips are an extreme solution to the problem of electronic security, but one that undoubtedly works. And while the first customers of the technology will no doubt be the government and the military, one day you might be able to send a simple command to a stolen smartphone to leave the thief holding nothing but a shell full of useless electronics dust.