Mission possible: Self-destructing phones are now a reality

Owen Hughes
Tom Cruise

Self-destructing gadgets favoured by the likes of James Bond and Mission: Impossible's Ethan Hunt have taken one step closer to reality. Researchers in Saudi Arabia have developed a mechanism that, when triggered, can destroy a smartphone or other electronic device in as little as 10 seconds.

The self-destruct mechanism has been created by electrical engineers at the King Abdulla University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and consists of a polymer layer that rapidly expands when subjected to temperatures above 80 degrees Celsius, effectively bursting the phone open from the inside. The mechanism can be adapted to be triggered in various ways, including remotely through a smartphone app or when it's subjected to pressure.

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Once triggered, power from the device's battery is directed to electrodes that rapidly heat, causing the polymer layer to expand to around seven times its original size within 10-15 seconds. This crushes the vital components inside the device, destroying any information stored on board.

"The expandable polymer expands much more and causes sufficient tension in the thin silicon — which is sitting on top of the polymer — so it simply crumples and then breaks," KAUST engineer Muhammad Hussain told IEEE Spectrum.

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KAUST expanding polymer

The invention could provide a cost-effective fail-safe in situations when devices containing sensitive information are compromised. The self-destruct sequence can be set off using different triggers, for example if the device moves too far away from its starting point or if it detects someone trying to force their way into the device.

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"The first customers would be the ones who need data protection: intelligence communities, corporations, banks, hedge funds, social security administrations, collectors who handle massive data," Hussain said.

KAUST said its invention can be retro-fitted to current electronic devices for as little as $15 (£12, €14) and, if necessary, configured so that some components remain intact when triggered. The temperature at which the self-destruct mechanism activates can also be "fine-tuned" to anywhere between 80 and 250 degrees.

While Darpa has toyed with self-destructing gadgets before, this involved a specially-designed glass chip that not only requires a compatible device processor to use, but is also more expensive to develop and works slower that KAUST's mechanism.

Hussain and his team said there was still more work to do before self-destructing gadgets find their way into people's pockets, which sounds like a good thing to us. In the meantime, we'll have to make do with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

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