IBM and PARC to design sensitive electronics for military that shatter to dust on command

ARLINGTON, Va., 5 Feb. 2014. Two U.S. companies are joining a military research program to develop sensitive electronic components able to self-destruct on command to keep them out of the hands of potential adversaries who would attempt to counterfeit them for their own use.

PARC, a Xerox company in Palo Alto, Calif., and IBM Corp. in Armonk, N.Y., are joining the Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Last Friday DARPA awarded a $2.1 million contract to PARC, and a $3.5 million contract to IBM for the VAPR program, which seeks to develop transient electronics that can physically disappear in a controlled, triggerable manner.

Related: SRI International to design vanishing battery for decomposing electronics program

PARC and IBM join the Honeywell Aerospace Microelectronics & Precision Sensors segment in Plymouth, Minn., and SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., on the VAPR program. In December Honeywell won a $2.5 million VAPR contract and SRI International won a $4.7 million contract.

The goal of the DARPA VAPR program is to develop electronic components that will decompose on command to prevent unauthorized use and compromise of intellectual property. PARC is short for Palo Alto Research Center, and IBM is short for International Business Machines.

PARC and IBM, experts in microelectronics technologies, will develop electronic component materials that shatter when triggered. SRI International, meanwhile, is working on a disappearing silicon/air battery.

Related: Honeywell to investigate transient electronic components able to decompose on demand

PARC scientists will build on their company's experience with stress-engineered materials, silicon processing, and microchip handling and deposition to create a transience technology called Disintegration Upon Stress-release Trigger, or DUST.

PARC proposes to develop stress-engineered substrates with integrated triggers and silicon proxy, or "dummy" circuits that crumble into small, sand-like particles in a fraction of a second when an electrical trigger is applied.

The particle size is such that the individual pieces will be invisible to the naked eye at a reasonable distance and will blend into the surrounding environment under a variety of conditions, DARPA officials say. The transience behavior is enabled as the intense internal stress of the substrate is released, and is the core element of this technology, officials say.

Related: Counterfeit component chaos

IBM researchers, meanwhile, plan is to use the property of strained glass substrates to shatter into silicon and silicon dioxide power as their contribution to the DARPA VAPR program. An RF signal trigger such as a fuse or a reactive metal layer will initiate shattering.

SRI International's work on the VAPR program centers on an approach called stressed pillar-engineered CMOS technology readied for evanescence (SPECTRE) that when triggered renders a silicon/air battery transient power supply unobservable to the human eye.

SRI International experts will design, build, and prove a vanishing silicon/air battery; and move the proven technology to a semiconductor foundry to yield a deployable, realistic, and scalable power supply for use by DARPA customers.

Related: The scourge of high tech

Overall, researchers from PARC, IBM, SRI International, and Honeywell will work with DARPA to develop new concepts and capabilities to enable the materials, components, integration, and manufacturing to build this new class of disappearing electronics.

Transient electronics may enable revolutionary new military capabilities, including sensors, environmental monitoring over large areas, and simplified diagnosis, treatment, and health monitoring in the field, DARPA officials say.

Large-area distributed networks of sensors that can decompose in the natural environment may provide critical data for a limited time, but no longer. In medical applications, devices that resorb into the body may aid in continuous health monitoring and treatment in the field.

Related: Senate committee turns up heat on counterfeit parts in the military

Researchers from the four companies will pursue transient electronics with performance comparable to rugged commercial-off-the-shelf (R-COTS) electronics, but with limited lifetimes.

Without such capability, DARPA officials say, it is nearly impossible to track and recover every electronic device on the battlefield, which risks technology counterfeiting, unintended accumulation in the environment, and potential enemy use. Once triggered to dissolve, these electronics would be useless to any enemy who might come across them.

“DARPA is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed," says Alicia Jackson, the VAPR program manager at DARPA. "The breakdown of such devices could be triggered by a signal sent from command or any number of possible environmental conditions, such as temperature.”

Related: Pentagon stirs up semiconductor industry with its requirement to mark parts with unique DNA

The four companies will conduct basic research into materials, devices, manufacturing and integration processes, and design methodology in transient electronics, culminating in demonstration of a prototype circuit that can accept instructions from a remote user.

For more information contact PARC online at www.parc.com, IBM at www.ibm.com, SRI International online at www.sri.com, Honeywell Microelectronics & Precision Sensors online at www.honeywellmps.com, or DARPA at www.darpa.mil.

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