The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has revealed the first pictures of semiconductor 'dielets' designed to protect chips against counterfeiting and tampering.
Last year, DARPA invited organisations to submit proposals for encrypted dielets or chiplets that could be added covertly to electronic components during manufacturing and be verified in the field using a scanner.
The dielets will have to be able to contain up to 100,000 transistors and handle two-way radio communication, have on-board encryption and an energy harvesting function that does away with the need for a battery, and passive sensors for tamper-detection.
Adding to the challenge, the Supply Chain Hardware Integrity of Electronics Defense (SHIELD) programme called for dielets that consume less than 50 microwatts and cost a penny or less per unit.
The new images are of dummy dielets developed by DARPA-supported researchers - the size of dust specks - that are not fully functional but are used to "to help them learn how to dice, sort, pick, place and otherwise handle such teensy components."
"We are on track to build the world’s smallest highly integrated computer chip," said DARPA Program Manager Kerry Bernstein in a statement.
"If we succeed, then an untrained operator at any place along the supply chain will be able to interrogate the authenticity of any component used by the Defense Department or in the commercial sector, and get high-confidence results back immediately, on site, securely and essentially for free," he added.
DARPA notes that the dielets will protect from counterfeiting that could threaten the trustworthiness of just about anything with a chip in it - from smart credit cards to engine-controlling automotive computers to F-16 fighter-jet radar systems.
Counterfeit, cloned, and otherwise doctored electronic chips already are circulating in markets and the problem is only likely to grow in the coming years, according to the agency.