Reverse engineering silicon is a dark art, and when you’re just starting off it’s best to stick to the lesser incantations, curses, and hexes. Hackaday caught up with Ken Shirriff at last year’s Supercon for a chat about the chip decapping and reverse engineering scene. His suggestion is to start with an old friend: the 555 timer.
Ken is well-known for his work photographing the silicon die at the heart of an Integrated Circuit (IC) and mapping out the structures to create a schematic of the circuit. We’re looking forward to Ken’s talk in just a few weeks at the Hackaday Superconference. Get a taste of it in the interview video below.
You’ll be surprised by how easy it is to get into this hobby. Ken’s advice about taking on the 555 timer is brilliant because you can do so with a hacksaw rather than using chemicals like fuming nitric acid. Apparently if you hit eBay you can still get these chips packaged in a metal can, rather than the black epoxy that usually comes to mind. Grab a hacksaw to open the can, take a great picture of the now-exposed die, and you can start working through the structures. These chips are not built using the incredibly small scale of digital chips, and the circuits themselves are not overly complicated. Ken even has a primer that walks you through this exact process, including die photos if you want to skip the hacksaw step.
You might not make your living designing silicon, but think of this as a jigsaw puzzle for electronics engineers. You have the schematic and you just need to find where all the pieces fit.
There are many notable people working in the same field as Ken and he mentions a few of them: John McMasters at Siliconpr0n, Rob Baruch at Project 5474, and the fine folks at Zeptobars. All are great resources for learning, and getting your hands on die photos for further study.
Ken uses a method of stitching together multiple photos from his microscope using the Hugin software package. It’s the secret to die shots where every part is crystal clear, and we think it’s as remarkable as the reverse engineering work. To go deeper, check out the talk he gave at the 2016 Hackaday Superconference. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with this year!