Perhaps no industry over the past century has risen more than electronic devices. Mostly in the form of computers, electronic devices have become a part of so many standard products ranging from automobiles to communications and even to clothing and food products.

For companies that create electronic devices, having access to the highest quality electronic parts is essential. However, with this demand for parts of this type being so great, counterfeit parts are now on the rise.

Counterfeit Parts in Electronic Devices

In 2011, it was estimated that more than 50% of distributors in the electronic field had either detected or had counterfeit parts included in their devices. The problem is especially acute in the defence industry. In 2012, the Senate Armed Services Committee found more than a million counterfeit parts that were part of the supply chain to the Pentagon. It was not surprising that China proved to be the source of more than 70% of the counterfeit parts that were discovered.

The estimated cost to the consumer industry in terms of electronic devices is roughly $250 billion each year. Recently, a new study by the US Military concluded that about 15% of all electronic devices were either in part or made up of counterfeit parts.

Keep in mind that the term counterfeit is not used in the same context as counterfeit money. While counterfeit money is not real, counterfeit electronic parts are not fake. They are real and often will work close to the same parameters as the parts they have replaced. However, the main difference is that they have not undergone the rigorous testing and safety considerations compared to their real counterparts.

Counterfeit parts are essentially electronic parts created from lower-quality designs and materials that come from outside sources. The impact of such parts is considerable, ranging from poorer results to putting people into danger depending on what parts have been replaced.

One notable incident was the discovery in 2009 that NASA used counterfeit parts in the construction of their spacecraft and satellites. While the parts themselves turned out to be not a threat to the satellites or the astronauts who flew in the space shuttle, it did cost NASA a considerable amount of money and time to identify and replace the parts with those that met the high-quality standards that are required for both manned and unmanned spacecraft.

While it is quite possible that the counterfeit parts used might not have made much of a difference initially, their lower-quality designs and less extensive testing may have resulted in electronic devices in the shutting having to be replaced or repaired sooner. Or satellites that do not last as long in orbit because their parts are not fully tested to withstand the rigours of exposure to the radiation in outer space.

Improving the Standards for Electronic Parts

The real issue with detecting counterfeit electronic parts is that most of them are made well enough to go undetected at least in the initial stages. This is because opening, inspecting, and rigorously testing every electronic device that is sold is impractical. If the device passes its initial test and proves to be functional, it is considered good enough until further testing or when the device fails occurs.

To counter the rise of counterfeit parts, new procedures, materials, and devices need to be used to help identify the use of these parts even faster. One interesting solution is the creation of the self-erasing chip.

The Power of the Self-Erasing Chip

One of the most interesting and arguably promising new technology to combat counterfeit electronic devices is the self-erasing chip. With its development being accelerated at the University of Michigan, it is quite possible these chips may alter the way in which electronic devices are created.

The principle of the self-erasing chip is based on the material from which it is made. This new type of material keeps energy inside of it so that over a few days it will start to self-erase. The process is noted by the change in the colour that the chip emits. In addition to losing the information over a few days, a flash of blue light will also quickly erase the chip as well.

The self-erasing chip is a layer of semiconductor that is just three atoms thick. The layer is placed atop azobenzene, which consists of molecules that reduce in size when exposed to ultraviolet or UV light. The result is that the shrinking molecules pull on the semiconductor. This causes it to emit light in a different, longer wavelength.

The material used to create the self-erasing chip is like nanomaterial, which won the Nobel Prize. However, it is different in one regard in that it emits light in specific frequencies. This allows the material to be used in the self-erasing process.

Creating the chip is an exercise in patience. Once the molecules were made, they were floated in a single layer atop a container of water. A silicon wafer was then dipped into the water. The result was the molecule layer wrapping itself around the water. Next, it was layered to a semiconductor using a sticky substance to ensure that it would stay connected. If you were thinking of Scotch tape, that is pretty much the same principle.

The tape was placed on the semiconductor and then single layers were pulled away gently. The result was a layer of selenium atoms, followed by a layer of tungsten atoms, then another layer of selenium atoms which created a type of sandwich effect. At that point, a stamp was used to ensure the azobenzene chip that was coated would be transferred to the semiconductor.

The process of self-erasing takes about seven days assuming that it is not exposed to light during that time. However, if it has been exposed to either light or heat, then the erasing process speeds up. Conversely, if it is stored in a dark, cold area, then it may take longer for the chips to self-erase.

Because the light that is emitted has changed, the message inside is no longer legible. It does require the right type of light to read whatever message has been placed inside. This is the same principle as invisible ink that also self-erases.

The self-erasing chips are well-designed for stopping electronics that are crafted from counterfeit parts. Or, if a shipment of sensitive parts had been tampered with during its delivery. This is important because of the difficulty associated with the detection of tampering. Given that many devices which have been tampered with may still operate normally, the sensitivity of the self-erasing chip provides a level of protection that provides peace of mind for the owners of electronic devices.

How It Works

While it may sound initially that the self-erasing chip is part of the electronic device itself, it is most effective when its use is not part of the functional aspect of the device. This is most notable when the self-erasing chip is used in bar codes.

A bar code is used every second around the world to identify products for purchase in retail stores. These same bar codes using self-erasing chips can be placed on all electronic devices to help detect the presence of counterfeit parts.

For example, such self-erasing bar codes could be set to erase when exposed to light. So, such a bar code can be placed on the outside of the device, but inside the packaging. If the chip shows signs of erasure, then it may be concluded that the packaging was opened before it arrived at its destination. The bar codes may also be written on the chips or circuit board itself to see if the devices had been opened or the components replaced.

Another method that will require the length of the self-erasing chip to be extended is using them as hardware analogues inside authorization keys of software systems. This will provide fast results if the components have been replaced. Once the chip has been erased, a new message that can be recorded. This means that if you place a bar code on a chip for example, once it has been erased it can be rewritten and used again and again.

The possibilities of the self-erasing chip are considerable across several different industries. Although the self-erasing chip is still in the early stages in terms of development, the possibilities for helping to curb the use of counterfeit chips is remarkable. By having a fast detection system, counterfeit parts can be detected earlier and replaced before devices are put into use. This has profound possibilities for space, medical, and defence industries, especially if lives are on the line.

However, the self-erasing chip is just one part of the process to end the use of counterfeit chips. It will take a more comprehensive effort to ensure that the use of counterfeit chips is minimised in future products. This means that the chip will be one part of an overall approach to detect and eliminate counterfeit chips before the devices can reach their final destination.