Most modern USB, SD, and MicroSD Flash memory devices are now constructed out of a single, monolithic chip. One method of recovering data from monolithic memory devices involves directly communicating with the memory core. This article describes how to sand monolithic Flash memory to expose the data and control lines required to retrieve data directly from the memory core.
A fiberglass pen works perfectly for this application. First, it is soft enough to not damage the delicate metal traces (wires). Second, it can be applied is relatively specific places. Third, it is relatively inexpensive. And lastly, it is extremely easy to use. Simply gently brush the surface of the underside of the monolith until all necessary copper traces are exposed. Isopropyl alcohol can then be used to clean the surface. The sanding procedure takes approximately 20 minutes to complete.
The ACE Lab PC-3000 Flash is one of the few products available in the world capable of communicating directly with a Flash memory core. Both the Spider Board and Multi-Board adapters can be used.
Extracting the Monolithic Flash Memory Chip
The beginning steps in preparing monolith Flash memory for data recoveries vary based on the form factor, or type of memory, used. For example, a Secure Digital (SD) monolith first requires extraction from its thin, plastic shell before it can be physically accessed for data recovery. Similarly, removal of a monolith residing in a USB Flash drive for data recovery also requires disassembly of the exterior body. On the other hand, a microSD card contains no shell or body of any type. A microSD card is a tiny monolith memory chip in card form.
Preparing a Monolithic SD Card
To prepare a monolith from a SD memory card, begin by first extricating the monolith chip from its plastic case. I use a scalpel or razor blade and carefully cut around the outside edge of the case. I prefer starting to cut around a corner on the opposite side of gold interface pins to avoid damaging the monolith inside.
Next, cut into the other corner opposite the side containing the interface pins. Then, I slowly start cutting a little bit at a time from both sides towards the interface pins. Eventually the plastic case separates and the monolith chip inside will just fall out. I typically do not fully separate the top and bottom pieces of the plastic case. I avoid cutting near the monolith as much as possible and therefore only cut half to two-thirds of the way down the side of the case.
Oftentimes, I start by scoring the plastic case with a scalpel and then separate the two halves of plastic simply using a fingernail. I make every effort to exert as little force as possible when cutting the case. Then, I gently start to separate the two halves of the case away from each other. Eventually, the monolith will fall out of its case on its own due to gravity.
Sanding a Monolithic Flash Memory Chip
After removal from its case, place the monolith on a napkin or paper towel with the interface pins facing up. Then, while wearing gloves, use a fiberglass pen to gently remove the coating protecting the monolith’s top layer of circuitry. I recommend using a fine-tip fiberglass pen for this. The fiberglass bristles are extremely gentle so this process can take 20 minutes to complete.
Please note pieces of fiberglass constantly break off from the pen during sanding. These pieces greatly irritate skin, eyes, lungs, etc. Take care not to breathe in any fiberglass and wear gloves. Working on top of a disposable towel helps trap fiberglass pieces in the fibers of the towel, making their disposal simple, safe, and easy.
Where to Sand a Monolithic Flash Memory Chip
The internal circuit design of monolithic Flash memory always change. Without knowing the layout of a monolith in advance, it can be difficult to determine what areas of the monolith require sanding down to expose the circuitry underneath.
Firstly, if a monolith Flash card or drive is not recognized with data recovery software and a DeepSpar USB Stabilizer Pro, or if enough cannot data be recovered, the best solution is an ACE Lab PC-3000 Flash. The PC-3000 recovers data directly from the memory core, completely bypassing the controller and standard interface.
Secondly, a fiberglass pen is the best cost-effective method for exposing the top layer of monolith circuitry. Appropriate grit sandpaper, maybe 2,000 grit, also works. Expensive laser systems for removing smartphone back-glass are also used to vaporize the protective coating and expose the monolith’s circuitry.
Lastly, a data recovery hardware-software system is used to acquire a chip ID and recover data. My favorite platform for recovering data from severely damaged monolith Flash memory cards and drives is the ACE Lab PC-3000 Flash.