[ISN] Exploding chips could foil laptop thieves.

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Thu Jan 17 2002 - 23:12:47 PST

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    Forwarded from: Jay D. Dyson <jdysonat_private>
    Courtesy of Cryptography List.
    Exploding chips could foil laptop thieves
    19:00 16 January 02
    Duncan Graham-Rowe
    A new way of making silicon explode could mean anyone trying to use a
    stolen laptop or mobile will be confronted by this message: "This machine
    is stolen and will self-destruct in ten seconds ... ". 
    Until now scientists have only managed to make silicon go bang by mixing
    it with either liquid oxygen or nitric acid. But Michael Sailor and his
    colleagues at the University of California in San Diego have found a way
    to blow up silicon chips using an electrical signal. 
    They say their method could be used to fry circuitry in devices that fall
    into the wrong hands. For instance, the American spy plane impounded by
    China last year could have used it to destroy its secret electronics
    Sailor's team hit upon this new way of exploding silicon when they applied
    the oxidising chemical gadolinium nitrate to a porous silicon wafer. As
    colleague Fred Mikulec used a diamond scribe to split the wafer it blew up
    in his face, giving Mikulec the shock of his life. Luckily, only a minute
    quantity of silicon was involved so it was a small bang. "It's a bit like
    a cap in a cap gun going off," says Sailor. 
    Fast burn
    The gadolinium nitrate used the energy from the diamond scribe to oxidise
    the silicon fuel, which burns fast because its crystals have a large
    surface area. "The faster the burn, the bigger the bang," explains Sailor. 
    You would only need a tiny quantity of the chemical to do irreparable
    damage to delicate transistors, so it would be cheap and easy to add when
    the chips are being made. 
    In a stolen mobile phone, the network would send a trigger signal to the
    part of the chip containing the gadolinium nitrate "detonator", triggering
    the explosion. "We have shown that you can store this stuff and detonate
    it at will," says Sailor. 
    Other applications suggested for the technology include testing for toxic
    substances in groundwater. The device could be used on the spot to burn
    minute samples on a disposable chip and analyse their chemical
    composition.  Alternatively, it could be used as a fuel supply for
    microscopic machines etched onto silicon wafers, says Sailor. 
    Journal reference: Advanced Materials (vol 14, p 38) 
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