Getting in Touch With Your Inner Chip




About: The name comes from the First Star Trek movie, that pretty much says it all.

If you are reading this on the instructable web site you almost certainly are using a computer to do it. And as most of you know computers use microchips to process all the information they work with and store. You might have even seen the IC chips mounted on a printed circuit board. But how many of you have actually seen the little silicon chips inside those little black mounted chips. Believe it or not there is a way that you can actually see the inner silicon chip sealed inside. But be warned, it is a destructive process and whatever chip you decide to explore will never be usable again. SO if you want to try this use some older burnt out or obsolete stuff that you would probably have thrown away.

Step 1: Remove the Chpis From the Boards

First remove the chip from the board. The easiest way to do this is with a utility knife or a wood chisel. Run the blade along the soldered pins to cut them loose and then slip the chisel under the chip and pry it off the board. To make sure you get a good selection remove all of the chips and process them all. You can do this with motherboards, or add in cards like modems and old sound cards, anything that has chips on it. The exception is processors or CPU’s, they are mounted in a completely different way. I will talk about them later, for now we are looking for those black plastic looking chips, usually with no heat sinks on them. If you want to actually see the circuit designs on them after you get them free, look for older chips to work with. The older chips used larger circuit prints and so are easier to see. The newer processes for newer chips have shrunk the circuits down so much they are almost impossible to see with anything less than a very powerful microscope.

Step 2: Flame ON ---- Toasting Chips

Find a metal support to put your chips on. Old hard drive mounts work really good for this, and place that on top of something that will not burn like a metal garbage can lid. All this needs to be done outside unless you have a big fume hood to work under since this will produce lots of black smoke and it smells pretty bad.
This is the fun part. Take a propane torch and heat the chips until they burn. In fact burn them until they glow red and stop smoking. Turn them over with a set of pliers and then torch the other side. Let the chips cool down. They will still be intact but will now be brittle and in some cases white with ash.

Step 3: Danger Will Robinson

CAUTION----Remember to use caution when using the torch. You can set other things on fire. Always be aware of where the flame is pointing and work in an area that is safe from fire hazards. And be careful of the hot metal your chips are sitting on. It can stay hot for a while. ALSO---- Although you can use the torch to unsolder the chips from a board you shouldn’t do it because you can heat up the little capacitors scattered around the board and if they get hot they will explode!! I made a video of this happening. There is no sound but trust me these sound like firecrackers going off. Beware!! When these pop they really fly and can hurt you if they hit you. Also there is a fluid inside them that can burn you if you get it on you so don’t do it.

Step 4: Set Your Chips Free

Once your chips have cooled down you can take them inside if you want. I suggest working on a piece of cardboard or a paper bag for the next part so you can clean up the soot easily . Hold the chip in your fingers, take a pair of long nose pliers and break off the edge about 1/3 of the way in. The chip should crumble and fall apart. The actual piece of silicon is located in the middle, all the rest is for support and for connecting the wires up. Carefully break off the edges, looking for the smaller chip on the inside. Most of the chips are resting on a small metal support plate. The Silicone chips look like tiny pieces of glass when you get to them. Be careful not to break the chip when you break the matrix off of it. Usually it just falls apart. When you wipe the chip off you will be able to see on one side the tiny engraved circuitry, the back side will be blank. Once you get all your chips free from the matrix you can put them aside and throw all the leftover ash and pieces away. Most of the silicone chips will come out clean but a few of them will have some sort of varnish on them. This usually can be scraped off with a fingernail or a toothpick. Don’t use anything metal to scrape the surface.

Step 5: See Your Inner Chip for What It Really Is.

Now, if you have a microscope you can use it to look at the chip circuitry. It will be a little damaged from the heat and the process of removing the surrounding matrix but you should be able to clearly see the general layout on the silicone. Sometimes you can find copyright notices, manufacturer stamps and occasionally art work that a designer put into a spare spot. Even though you can’t actually see how the circuits work or the schematics its still fun to see the actual chip that’s behind all the electronics.

Step 6: Oldies But Goodies

Look for an older 386 or 486 processor since these are really pretty on the inside. With these processors the chips are mounted on a ceramic base upside down and then wired up with gold wires. To see the inside of these, remove the bottom plate. It is only soldered in place so all you need to do is heat the plate up with your torch until it gets hot and falls out. Heat only the bottom of the plate and not the ceramic the chip is mounted on. Hold the processor with your long nose pliers and just pass it over the flame, heating up the bottom plate. It heats up very quickly and it will only take seconds for it to fall off. The dies for these chips were so large that the circuits are easily seen. The first Pentiums were made this way as well, but in the Pentium 2 and AMD and Cyrix processors they changed the way the chips are mounted. The Athlon Socket A chips are actually mounted with the circuit side down into a connecting matrix. The back sides of the chips are actually the tops where the heat sink is mounted. Even if you can get these unstuck from the matrix you still won’t be able to see anything because of the different mounting process. The faster Athlon 64 processors are completely contained so the chip is not visible. What you see on them is basically a heat distributor that connects directly to the chip.

Step 7: Whats Under the Hood-- Microscope Views

So, there you have it. An insight into what is behind all electronics today. It’s kind of like popping the car hood to check out the engine. And it gives the true geek a peek at what is under the hood.

Bellow are some views taken from my old microscope that I thought were interesting.



    • Remix Contest

      Remix Contest
    • Weaving Challenge

      Weaving Challenge
    • Build a Tool Contest

      Build a Tool Contest

    12 Discussions


    7 years ago on Step 3

    wath out with the capacitors because those are the metal things going off.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I would think you could use a heat gun instead of a torch. That's probably a safer way to go.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    If you can get EPROM chips, you can take a look at them very easily, they have a small window on top, under the label, but if you want to keep the contents of the chip, you can't remove the label.

    stay upwind on this if you don't want to get bronchitis or something worse inhaling the smoke. When you heat chips up, the first thing that will start vaporing is the flux, then the copper/silver conduits, then pure silicon substrate....not to mention many of the older chips are far from ROHS expect some lead smoke as well I personally do not recommend this at all...unless your doing this in an enclosure with a blast shield as hot silicon chips leaves burns not all that different from glass, and a forced air ventilation unit


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Ooooooh, shiny. I have a couple of old laptop motherboards kicking around so I'll be sure to try it. PS. Love the photos. 5 stars.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    If you do this and look at the chips under a microscope, look for little artistic flourishes the chip designers may have included, things like pictures, sayings, etc. It's their way of signing their work. I believe there's a website that features these kinds of things.

    1 reply

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Yes, I took all the pictures. To get the close ups I adapted the idea of isr_Raviv and used a binocular lens with my digital camera. He made an instructable about how to do it. I have done lots of close ups just with the camera but using the extra lens enabled me to get even closer. The microscope pictures were made with an older camera and a very old microscope. The old camera with simpler lenses meshed with the scope just right. Actually the hardest part was getting the light correct on the chips. For most things the light source comes from underneath the scope and pases through the sample. With chips you have to get a bright light source to shine on them from above. Took a lot of improvising. I need a new microscope to do this much better.