​A new gadget can give phones a self-destruct option

No one wants a smartphone that randomly self-destructs like Samsung’s fire-prone Galaxy Note 7, but an on-demand self-destruct option? That could be useful.

Scientists have developed a gadget to enable self-destructing phones or laptops and possibly a surer way to destroy data on lost hardware than remote wiping or encryption.

The self-destruction option seen in Mission: Impossible movies could become a reality thanks to the work of electrical engineers at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulla University of Science and Technology (KAUST) who’ve developed a rapidly expanding, heat-sensitive polymer.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already developed a glass chip that shatters within 10 seconds. The catch with DARPA’s chip is that it’s a highly customized chip and probably costly.

As IEEE Spectrum reports, KAUST’s plastic contraption can self-destruct a device within the same timeframe but can be fused to existing components rather than requiring a custom chip. It’s also estimated to cost about $15 per unit.

Full details about the mechanism will be revealed in a forthcoming edition of the Advanced Materials Technologies journal.

The polymer is sensitive to heat and expands rapidly. The power source only needs enough energy to to heat an electrode to 80 degrees C, which causes the polymer to expand to seven times its size almost instantaneously.

“The self-destruct mechanism relies on an expandable polymer layer that can rapidly expand to around seven times its original volume when heated to temperatures above 80 degrees C. The heat that triggers the polymer expansion comes from heater electrodes that could draw power from the battery of a smartphone or laptop,” writes IEEE Spectrum.

“Roughly 500 to 600 milliwatts supplied to the heater electrodes enables the polymer to expand and crumple the chip within 10 to 15 seconds, but even lower power values of around 300 milliwatts could do the job in just over a minute. Several experiments showed that the polymer’s rapid expansion can destroy an adjacent silicon chip up to 90 micrometers thick.”

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