Brussels, 11 Jul 2006
French universities have got together to set up a laboratory to test the sensitivity of complex microelectronic circuits to natural background radiation.
Microelectronic circuits are everywhere, being found in everyday objects such as mobile phones and computers as well as in applications controlling financial transactions, telephone systems and in vehicles. As the components of microelectronic circuits get smaller and more complex, they become more and more sensitive to cosmic rays and particle fluxes (atmospheric neutrons).
Although levels of this radiation are relatively low at sea level, their level increases substantially with altitude, and at the cruising altitude of airliners, is 1,000 times higher than at sea level. Some particles in particular, like high energy neutrons, are particularly invasive, and can even get through reinforced concrete. They are therefore able to create severe problems in electronic circuits by affecting the electrical charge of the system's components.
Called ASTEP (Altitude SEE Test European Platform), the new laboratory is situated in the French Alps at an altitude of over 2,500 metres. Here, it will be well placed to study the effects of radiation on microelectronic circuits so that companies producing and using them will be better able to protect them.
The first experiment is already underway; millions of components, each able to store information in the form 0 or 1, have been set up at the platform. These will be observed for a number of months to see how many components change state - switching from 0 to 1 or vice-versa - because of the effects of radiation. The first results will be presented in September.
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