By Max Clarke

Chipir’ will be the first dedicated facility outside of the US to look at how silicon microchips respond to cosmic radiation. It will use an intense beam of high-energy neutrons produced by ISIS, a set of super microscopes that enable scientists to study materials at a level 10,000 times thinner than human hair.

Cosmic radiation has the power to cause the failure of electronic systems, particularly in aircraft and road vehicles. Problems can range from wiping a device’s memory to complete destruction of the electronics. The new neutron beam line will replicate the cosmic radiation affecting microchips from 100 years of flying time in the space of an hour. The findings will help manufacturers build more reliable electronic systems, which will in turn make planes and cars safer.

Announcing the funding during a visit to the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:

ISIS is one of the UK’s major scientific achievements. It supports an international community of 2,000 scientists including physicists, biologists, engineers and geologists and helps us learn more about the material world.

“This new beam line will enable scientists to test the very systems that we rely upon the most — the electronic components that keep planes in the air and make sure car airbags deploy at the right time. Chipir will be the world’s best facility for screening microchips with neutrons, leading to safer, more reliable electronic systems and encouraging leading scientists and manufacturers to do their research in the UK.”

Chipir Project Scientist Dr Chris Frost said:

“I am absolutely delighted that the Chipir project is being funded as I have been working with colleagues from UK and European industry over the last few years to study the huge impact that cosmic ray neutrons can have on the operation and reliability of modern electronics. Our all pervasive reliance on electronics in everything from aircraft systems to medical equipment to computer and communication networks means that making the ISIS facility a key tool for understanding and overcoming this industry wide problem is a very exciting prospect.”

Chipir will be funded by the Large Facilities Capital Fund, which is administered by central Government. The investment will cover the construction of the facility and the necessary software to record the data from the microchip testing.

ISIS is owned and operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. It has been running for over 25 years, produced over 9,000 research papers and improved the performance of a range of materials, including pharmaceuticals and fuel cells.