This story is from the category Computing Power
Date posted: 14/06/2012
University of Utah engineers have designed microscopic mechanical devices that withstand intense radiation and heat, so they can be used in circuits for robots and computers exposed to radiation in space, damaged nuclear power plants or nuclear attack.
The researchers showed the devices kept working despite intense ionizing radiation and heat by dipping them for two hours into the core of the University of Utah's research reactor. They also built simple circuits with the devices.
Ionizing radiation can quickly fry electronic circuits, so heavy shielding must be used on robots such as those sent to help contain the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after Japan's catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
"Robots were sent to control the troubled reactors, and they ceased to operate after a few hours because their electronics failed," says Massood Tabib-Azar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah and the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative.
"We have developed a unique technology that keeps on working in the presence of ionizing radiation to provide computation power for critical defense infrastructures," he says. "Our devices also can be used in deep space applications in the presence of cosmic ionizing radiation, and can help robotics to control troubled nuclear reactors without degradation."
The new devices are "logic gates" that perform logical operations such as "and" or "not" and are a type of device known as MEMS or micro-electro-mechanical systems. Each gate takes the place of six to 14 switches made of conventional silicon electronics.
Development of the new logic gates and their use to build circuits such as adders and multiplexers is reported in a study set for online publication this month in the journal Sensors and Actuators. The research was conducted by Tabib-Azar, University of Utah electrical engineering doctoral student Faisal Chowdhury and computer engineer Daniel Saab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Tabib-Azar says that if he can obtain more research funding, "then the next stage would be to build a little computer" using the logic gates and circuits.
The study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
"Its premier goal is to keep us ready," says Tabib-Azar. "If there is a nuclear event, we need to be able to have control systems, say for radars, to be working to protect the nation. There are lots of defense applications both in peacetime and wartime that require computers that can operate in the presence of ionizing radiation."
In April, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency issued a call for the development of robots to deal with stricken nuclear reactors to reduce human exposure to deadly radiation. In May, NASA said it was seeking proposals for new shields or materials able to resist radiation in space. Circuits built with the new devices also could resist intense heat in engines to monitor performance, Tabib-Azar says.
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