Chip Decapping The Easy Way

Chip decapping videos are a staple of the hacking world, and few things compare to the beauty of a silicon die stripped of its protective epoxy and photographed through a good microscope. But the process of actually opening that black resin treasure chest seems elusive, requiring as it does a witch’s brew of solvents and acids.

Or does it? As [Curious Marc] documents in the video below, a little heat and some finesse are all it takes, at least for some chips. The method is demonstrated by [Antoine Bercovici], a paleobotanist who sidelines as a collector of old chips. After removing chips from a PCB — he harvested these chips from an old PlayStation — he uses hot air to soften the epoxy, and then flexes the chip with a couple of pairs of pliers. It’s a bit brutal, but in most of the Sony chips he tried for the video, the epoxy broke cleanly over the die and formed a cleavage plane that allowed the die to be slipped out cleanly. The process is not unlike revealing fossils in sedimentary rocks, a process that he’s familiar with from his day job.

He does warn that certain manufacturers, like Motorola and National, use resins that tend to stick to the die more. It’s also clear that a hairdryer doesn’t deliver enough heat; when they switched to a hot air rework station, the success rate went way up.

The simplicity of this method should open the decapping hobby up to more people. Whether you just want to take pretty pictures or if reverse engineering is on your mind, put the white fuming nitric acid down and grab the heat gun instead.

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A Steady Hand Makes This Chip Work Again

What do you do when you’re working with some vintage ICs and one of the tiny legs pops off? That’s what happened to [Kotomi] when working with an old Super Nintendo. A single lead for the sound chip just snapped off, leaving [Kotomi] one pin short of a working system (the Google Translatrix). This is something that can be fixed, provided you have a steady hand and a rotary tool that’s spinning at thousands of RPM.

Fixing this problem relies on a little bit of knowledge of how integrated circuits are built. There’s a small square of silicon in there, but this tiny die is bonded to a metal leadframe, which looks like the ribcage of a robotic centipede. This leadframe is covered in epoxy, the pins are bent down, and you have an IC. Removing just a tiny bit of epoxy grants access to the leadframe which you can then solder to. Don’t breathe the repair, it’s not pretty, but it does work.

While this technique makes use of a Dremel to break into the chewy nougat center of a vintage chip, and in some ways this could be called decapsulation, it really isn’t. We’ve seen people drop acid to get to the center of a chip and a really hot torch will get to the middle of a ceramic chip, but this technique is just accessing the lead frame of the IC. All ICs have a stamped (or photoetched) metal frame to which the silicone die is bonded. Running a Dremel against some epoxy doesn’t access the silicon, but it does grant access to the signals coming off the chip.