High levels of radiation, such as those occurring naturally in space and at high altitudes on Earth, can wreak havoc on electronics. MIT's Lincoln Laboratory has developed a unique process for making integrated circuits resistant to damage and malfunction caused by extreme radiation levels.
This fabrication capability — the 90-nanometer fully depleted silicon-on-insulator (FDSOI) complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) process — is now being transferred to microchip manufacturer SkyWater Technology, which will use it to produce radiation-hardened, or rad-hard, electronics.
“Our 90-nanometer FDSOI CMOS process has matured and scaled, and it has reached a level of interest for those who need integrated circuits that are exposed to extreme radiation environments,” says Pascale Gouker, a senior staff member at Lincoln Laboratory who has worked on this technology for more than two decades. “There are many applications in space, high-energy physics, and other national security-related areas that operate in extreme environments and need to be 'rad-hard.'”
Lincoln Laboratory began working on fully depleted silicon-on-insulator technology in the mid-1990s under sponsorship of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As the size of transistors shrank and the number that could be packed onto a silicon chip grew, fully depleted technology could help manufacturers enhance their chips' energy efficiency and performance. In the ensuing years, variants of the laboratory's baseline FDSOI technology were optimized for operation under specialized conditions, such as radio frequency range, extreme low power, and for cryogenic, high-temperature, and extreme radiation environments. The extreme-radiation capability is the basis of the current technology transfer to SkyWater Technology. It was developed with initial sponsorship from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and more recently with support from the Office of the Secretary of Defense through the Trusted and Assured Microelectronics (T&AM) program, with additional funding provided by the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We are excited to accelerate our support of Department of Defense objectives with the transfer of this proven FDSOI process from Lincoln Laboratory,” says Brad Ferguson, SkyWater chief technology officer. “This process technology will enable an unprecedented spectrum of strategic rad-hard solutions for system designers while also extending a range of hardened capabilities for numerous industrial uses.”
This technology transfer is associated with an investment for a strategic manufacturing capability in radiation-hardened microelectronics that the Department of Defense (DoD) T&AM program is making at SkyWater, which is a trusted, DoD-accredited pure play foundry. The T&AM program is developing enhanced sources of microelectronics for the DoD's unique needs. The T&AM program seeks to collaborate with industry and key laboratory partners to provide sustainable, assured technology solutions for national security and defense. The SkyWater investment, announced in October 2019, includes up to $170 million to enhance microelectronics capabilities for the DoD and the rad-hard market.
This rad-hard fabrication capability will complement SkyWater's existing 90-nanometer rad-tolerant production capability. In addition to supporting DoD needs, this transfer will also help SkyWater address non-defense-related opportunities for rad-hard electronics, such as commercial space operations and medical imaging applications.
Craig Keast, the associate head of Lincoln Laboratory's Advanced Technology Division, says that the 90-nanometer FDSOI CMOS technology will be “the most advanced radiation-hardened-by-process technology available to the radiation circuit design community in the country” once it is transferred. Lincoln Laboratory's transfer of its technology to industry is a key part of its mission as a federally funded research and development center.
“A large team has worked for many years to bring this technology to fruition, and it is wonderful to see it picked up by commercial industry so that it can have broader impact on both government and commercial applications,” Keast adds.