ISIS replicates radiation

Scientists at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS neutron source are accelerating the effect of cosmic radiation on aviation microelectronics.

To help develop more robust equipment, the ISIS neutron research centre can replicate the effect of thousands of hours of flying time in just a few minutes.

High energy neutrons caused by cosmic rays can collide with microchips and upset or damage microelectronic devices, occurrences known as ‘Single Event Effects’ (SEEs). The effect on circuitry is 300 times greater at high altitude than at ground level, creating a potential risk to civil and military aircraft.

Dr Chris Frost, project leader of chip irradiation research ISIS, said: ‘A SEE occurs when a high energy particle in the atmosphere strikes sensitive regions of an electronic device, disrupting its correct operation. This can lead to temporary loss of RAM memory or even permanent burnout of equipment.’

The ISIS neutron source, a world leading facility for research in the physical and life sciences, can replicate the experience of thousands of hours of flying time in a very condensed period. Frost said that by exposing components to neutron beams produced at ISIS, the industry can learn lessons about the best way forward.

Following initial tests occurred at the end of 2006 at the ISIS neutron source in Oxfordshire, a £140m new ‘target station’ or neutron source is now under construction. Subject to funding, this will include a dedicated full-time instrument to test the effects of SEEs and chip irradiation.