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Self destructing electronics are coming—and then melting away

May 22, 2015, 2:27 PM UTC
Mission: Impossible
American actor Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, escaping through the collapsing aquarium in a restaurant, in a scene from the film 'Mission: Impossible', 1996. (Photo by Murray Close/Getty Images)
Photograph by Murray Close—Getty Images

Researchers at the University of Illinois have created electronics that will self destruct on command. The technology uses a radio frequency, acid and a layer of wax on the circuit to let the devices melt with an application of heat or based on a signal from a remote signal. While this sounds like the perfect bit of technology to include in your next note to Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt, the research has some very practical applications from security to environmental protection.

As we put more electronics into everyday devices such as furniture and toothbrushes throwing them away becomes a problem as the electronic components should be recycled instead. Including this type of technology that can break the electronics down using a specific environmental trigger, would allow the metals and other non biodegradable elements to dissolve down to their molecular elements for recycling, according to the researchers.

The researchers have dissolved electronics in water, which could be used for biomedical implants, but in this experiment, they used heat as the trigger. They embedded a weak acid in a bit of wax on the circuit. When the wax is heated the acid is released and dissolves the components. To remotely trigger the reaction, researchers install a heating coil that the radio signal turns on. That in turn, melts the wax.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tdj915k5gKg&w=560&h=315]

The security aspects of the technology are easy to see. It’s possible to use this to disable elements of a device should it fall into the wrong hands, or after a certain amount of time, making the idea of limited time electronic access devices really limited. From a blog post describing the technology at the university’s web site:

The researchers can control how fast the device degrades by tuning the thickness of the wax, the concentration of the acid, and the temperature. They can design a device to self-destruct within 20 seconds to a couple of minutes after heat is applied.

The devices also can degrade in steps by encasing different parts in waxes with different melting temperatures. This gives more precise control over which parts of a device are operative, creating possibilities for sophisticated devices that can sense something in the environment and respond to it.

I’m not sure what this means for using these electronics during the summer in Texas, or if this might lead to more tales of exploding electronics, but I’m all for technology that helps offset the heavy environmental cost that more electronics will take on the environment.