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IBM engineers "Mission Impossible" style military self-destruct chips

Anyone who has watched a spy film - from James Bond to Mission Impossible - is familiar with self-destructing messages and gadgets. But the technology might become a reality thanks to a project from DARPA and IBM.

Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Defense Department put out the call for technology that "when triggered, [can] degrade partially or completely into their surroundings."

Late last month, DARPA awarded IBM a $3.45 million (£2.1 million) contract to pursue the futuristic project, dubbed Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program, which will develop a "new class of electronics."

"The commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, electronics made for everyday purchases are durable and last nearly forever," Alicia Jackson, DARPA program manager, said in announcing VAPR last year. "DARPA is looking for a way to make electronics that last precisely as long as they are needed. The breakdown of such devices could be triggered by a signal sent from command or any number of possible environmental conditions, such as temperature."

Specifically, IBM will experiment with glass shattering techniques that can turn the silicon chips that power today's gadgets into an unusable 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," DARPA said.

But don't expect Apple or Samsung to reveal a self-destructing smartphone anytime soon. The idea is to protect secrets on the battlefield. Radios, remote sensors, and phones are all used by military personnel, but "it is almost impossible to track and recover every device," DARPA said. "At the end of operations, these electronics are often found scattered across the battlefield and might be captured by the enemy and repurposed or studied to compromise DoD's strategic technological advantage."

The news comes after DARPA launched a a curated list of DARPA-sponsored software and peer-reviewed publications last week, which aims to encourage those interested in DARPA's software and research to build upon the agency's work.