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Aeroplane and internet systems better protected thanks to unique UK technology

Christopher Frost

ChipIR radiation instrument scientist Dr Christopher Frost by ChipIR.
(Credit: STFC)

17 February 2017

Electronics systems we rely upon every day such as in aeroplanes and banking systems will be better protected from errors thanks to a technology with unique capabilities developed in the UK.

We have generally learned to rely upon electronic devices, but most of them are susceptible to the effects of cosmic rays, very high energy sub-atomic particles that exist out in the Universe.

To date, a voting system added 4096 votes to one of the candidate’s totals as a result of cosmic rays. Computers that control the internet are also vulnerable.

A UK team of scientists and engineers has developed a new machine called ChipIR, at STFC’s ISIS neutron and muon source that is helping companies who are developing new technologies to work out whether their systems could be adversely affected by cosmic rays. The system was discussed as part of a session at the World’s largest science gathering, the AAAS, on (17 February 2017).

The instrument has been made possible as a result of 21 million pounds of funding from the UK government, which followed on from an initial 145 million pounds investment for a second experimental hall at the ISIS facility.

When cosmic rays reach the Earth they create a gentle rain of neutrons - particles that exist at the centre of atoms. Just a single neutron interacting with an electronic device, can cause a wide range of errors – from corrupting a device’s memory to causing a chip to burn out.

Currently we do not know how technology will cope with long-term exposure to cosmic rays, and as the number of devices we own increases, so too does the risk of them being affected.

ChipIR, fires an intense beam of neutrons at the components to see if they can withstand the bombardment. The beam creates a thousand million times more neutrons than the number found in our atmosphere. One hour inside the instrument therefore, is equivalent to spending hundreds of years in the natural environment.

Experiments will test the product to its extreme, allowing industry to establish the reliability of their devices and identify potential vulnerabilities long before a product reaches the marketplace.


CHIPIR infographic
(Credit: STFC/Ben Gilliland)

Cosmic Rays

Cosmic Rays
(Credit: STFC/Ben Gilliland)


Dr Christopher Frost, Instrument Scientist for ChipIR, says: “As all of our lives become more reliant on advanced electronics, ensuring their reliability is going to become increasingly important. Companies will bring their electronics to us, and we will effectively run them for hundreds of years in just one hour. They can then understand where the problems are and make their electronics much more resilient.”

The beam can be adjusted to test a multitude of different-sized electronic equipment, from single chips to entire devices. The system is designed to mimic the real disruptions and failure that could be experienced by electronics. This means industry can develop strategies, designs and methods to mitigate the potential effects of cosmic rays, underpinning priority areas in the Governments Industrial Strategy such as manufacturing processes and quantum technologies.

Scientists leading this new experiment spoke to audiences about the neutron test and its importance at the prestigious AAAS in Boston, USA.

Dr Frost appeared alongside Jonathan Pellish from NASA and Bharat Bhuva from Vanderbilt University, giving one of three talks as part of the “Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather” session.

Find out more about ChipIR in our 60 second science video:

Science and Technology Facilities Council
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