US military funds Mission Impossible 'vanishing' tech

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Martin LandauImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Martin Landau (left) played Rollin Hand in the original Mission Impossible TV series

The US military is funding a project to develop electronics that can self-destruct like the secret messages in the Mission Impossible TV show.

Darpa, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has awarded computing giant IBM a $3.5m (£2.1m) contract to work on its Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) project.

It is looking to develop a class of "transient" electronics that can be destroyed by remote control.

The kit could be used in combat zones.

IBM's proposal involves the use of a radio frequency trigger that could shatter a glass coating on a silicon chip and turn it into powder.

"A trigger, such as a fuse or a reactive metal layer will be used to initiate shattering, in at least one location, on the glass substrate," the US government said in its grant award notice.

Darpa wants to develop large distributed networks of sensors that can collect and transmit data for a limited period and then be destroyed instantly to prevent them falling into enemy hands.

VAPR tech could also have applications in medical diagnosis and treatment, Darpa believes, if sensors can be developed that the body can reabsorb.

The Pentagon's research arm also granted $2.1m to Xerox company, Palo Alto Research Center (Parc) - a specialist in bioinformatics and large-area electronics.

Its proposed solution is similar to IBM's and relies on the materials being engineered under stress, so that when an electrical signal is received, the circuit crumbles into dust instantly as the stress is released.

Other companies involved in the VAPR transient electronics project include Honeywell Aerospace, awarded $2.5m, and SRI International, awarded $4.7m, late last year.

Honeywell's microelectronics experts are looking to develop components that would decompose naturally when they are no longer needed - a new take on the old "built-in obsolescence" concept.

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