Self-erasing chips could fight counterfeit electronics

Self-erasing chips developed at the University of Michigan could help stop counterfeiting of electronics or warn if sensitive shipments are tampered with, say US researchers.

The team from the University of Michigan – led by Parag Deotare (pictured), assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science – has developed a new material to make the chips that temporarily stores energy, changing the colour of the light it emits.

The chips made with the material self-erase in a matter of days, or can be erased on demand with a flash of blue light.

“With a self-erasing bar code printed on the chip inside the device, the owner could get a hint if someone had opened it to secretly install a listening device,” says the University.

“Alternatively, a bar code could be written and placed on integrated circuit chips or circuit boards to prove that they hadn’t been opened or replaced on their journeys.”

Deotare describes the technology as “self-powered, self-erasable memory” that could even be used as a hardware equivalent of a software authorisation key if the longevity of the material could be extended.

“It’s very hard to detect whether a device has been tampered with. It may operate normally, but it may be doing more than it should, sending information to a third party,” said Deotare.

The self-erasing chips are built from a three-atom-thick layer of semiconductor laid atop a thin film of molecules based on azobenzenes—a kind of molecule that shrinks in reaction to UV light.

Those molecules tug on the semiconductor in turn, causing it to emit slightly longer wavelengths of light. To read the message, you have to be looking at it with the right kind of light. The work is reported in the journal Advanced Optical Materials.

The University of Michigan says it has applied for patent protection and is seeking commercial partners to help bring the technology to market.

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