Self-Destructing Electronics Are Here and They Are Awesome

A renegade professor and his team at Iowa State just unveiled a mind-bending new technology. Put bluntly, they’ve created self-destructing electronics: gadgets that disappear with the flip of a switch. And, yes, it’s just like Mission Impossible.

It seems like we’ve been hearing about self-destructing electronics for ages now, and not just in cheesy TV shows or action-packed Tom Cruise movies. Last year, DARPA announced a new initiative called VAPR—a descriptive acronym for Vanishing Programmable Resources—to fund the development of “electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner.” IBM became one of the first companies to receive funding when the military research organization awarded them $3.45 million for the development of a self-destructing microchip.

But it looks like the Iowa State team beat them to the punch. A team lead by Reza Montazami, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering who actually submitted a paper to DARPA last year, is developing degradable polymer materials to be used in electronics. Montazami calls them “transient materials” or “transient electronics,” and the uses span from medical to military applications. (Think: dissolving devices and self-destructing spy gear.) The research team has started simple, displaying the materials’ unique properties in simple devices.

Montazami compared the new technology with the rise of silicon-based electronics. “The technology that was developed decades ago has evolved to fit our new needs such as smart phones and laptops,” he told Gizmodo. “Similarly, transient electronics is a technology; it can go as far and as complex as the demand and applications allow.” He added that silicon will not completely dissolve like his polymers.

So far, the disappearing antenna is the most impressive application of Montazami’s technology. One minute, it’s an antenna broadcasting important coordinates or whatever. Drop in a solution, though, and the next minute it’s gone—nothing but a few flecks of metal remain. The other device the research team showed off is a blue light-emitting diode. Again, it’s bright and shiny—and then it’s gone, almost without trace.

Next, the team hopes to develop more sophisticated devices. Montazami gives the example of a credit card that could dissolve when lost. You’d just have to send a signal from your smartphone to start the process. Or how about making the smartphone itself degradable, the full realization of that Mission Impossible dream? It’s possible. And it might not even be the Pentagon that invents it this time.

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