New UK facility aims to protect next generation microchips from cosmic ray chaos

Thursday 11 September 2014

CHIPIR build 27 Jan

CHIPIR build 27 Jan (Credit: STFC)
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UK scientists have built a new facility aimed at understanding how particles from space can interact with electronic devices, and to investigate the chaos that cosmic rays can cause – such as taking communications satellites offline, wiping a device's memory or affecting aircraft electronics. ChipIR has successfully completed its first round of development testing before going in to full operation in 2015.

Feasibility tests performed at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) ISIS by a British and Italian team in 2007 motivated the case for a dedicated beamline1, to be designed under the collaboration agreement between STFC and the Italian Research Council (CNR). Following a funding announcement by the UK government in 2011 the team, led by ISIS project scientist Dr Chris Frost, developed ChipIR , the latest facility built at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) ISIS neutron source. It is designed to look at how silicon microchips respond to cosmic neutron radiation, with consequent benefits for the electronics industry.

Cosmic rays hitting the Earth’s atmosphere generate showers of particles including high energy neutrons. These are an invisible threat that can disrupt the normal operation of electronic systems.

University, Science and Cities Minister, Greg Clark, said:

“The Government understands how vital it is to innovate and tackle the challenges that face our electronics industry. This funding is helping to develop a facility capable of putting safety critical circuits through their paces, making planes safer and the electronics on which we all depend more reliable.”

The STFC team has found ways to trace a pencil beam of neutrons over a chip, or flood a rack of electronics with neutrons, enabling them to pinpoint vulnerable areas or testing whole systems in operational conditions.

Dr Chris FrostChipIR project scientist at ISIS,said:

“In building ChipIR at ISIS we have created a test facility that will allow the electronics industry to rapidly assess the vulnerabilities of their devices. We can mimic the cosmic rays’ neutrons and, by putting an electronic device into their path, we can work out why that piece of electronics is being disrupted.”

ChipIR will dramatically increase the speed of electronics testing and provide Europe's gold standard for screening microchips. In a single hour, ISIS will be able to replicate the effects of exposing microchips to high-energy neutrons over 100 years of flying time.

Chris Frost added:

“The electronics industry, ranging from aviation and automotive to communication and the internet, will use ChipIR to pinpoint problems and to find the most cost effective and robust solutions to keep making electronic systems that are reliable and robust, as they become more complex, smaller and faster.

1 C. Andreani, A. Pietropaolo, A. Salsano, G. Gorini, M. Tardocchi, A. Paccagnella,, S. C. D. Frost, S. Ansell, S. P. Platt,Facility for fast neutron irradiation tests of electronics at the ISIS spallation neutron sourceApplied Physics Letters, 92, 114101 (2008)

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