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Self-erasing chips enhance security

Technology News |
By Ally Winning




Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed self-erasing chips that rely on a new material that temporarily stores energy, changing the colour of the light it emits. It self-erases in a matter of days, or it can be erased on demand with a flash of blue light.

“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 Parag Deotare, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

With a self-erasing bar code printed on the chip inside the device, the owner would know if it had been opened. Or a bar code could be written and placed on ICs or circuit boards, for instance, to prove that they hadn’t been opened or replaced on their journeys. Likewise, if the lifespan of the bar codes was extended, they could be written into devices as hardware analogues of software authorization keys.

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.

Che-Hsuan Cheng, a doctoral student in material science and engineering in Deotare’s group and the first author on the study in Advanced Optical Materials, is most interested in its application as self-erasing invisible ink for sending secret messages. To read the message, you have to be looking at it with the right kind of light.

This message will self-destruct in seven days, or it can be erased with a flash of blue light. Written with UV light, the letters are marked out by molecules that shrink by storing energy, stretching the atoms of the semiconductor above. This shifts the light emitted by the semiconductor to longer wavelengths, represented in the visible spectrum by yellow on a blue background. Image courtesy of Che-Hsuan Cheng, Excitonics and Photonics Lab, University of Michigan.

The stretched azobenzene naturally gives up its stored energy over the course of about seven days in the dark. This time can be shortened with exposure to heat and light, or lengthened if stored in a cold, dark place. Whatever was written on the chip, be it an authentication bar code or a secret message, would disappear when the azobenzene stopped stretching the semiconductor. Alternatively, it can be erased all at once with a flash of blue light. Once erased, the chip can record a new message or bar code.

The semiconductor itself is a “beyond graphene” material, said Deotare, as it has many similarities with the Nobel Prize-winning nanomaterial. But it can also do something graphene cannot, it emits light in particular frequencies.

Next steps for the research include extending the amount of time that the material can keep the message intact for use as an anti-counterfeit measure.

The research is funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Kim is also a professor of chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, macromolecular science and engineering, and chemistry.

The University of Michigan has applied for patent protection and is seeking commercial partners to help bring self-erasing chips to market.

www.umich.edu

Reserch paper: https://dx.doi.org/10.1002/adom.202001287

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