What Is Radiation Hardening?

Alex Newth

In radioactive environments, such as those experienced with nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and space exploration, there is a chance the radiation will leak into electronic hardware and fire off electrons that will either tamper with the hardware's functionality or destroy the chips completely. To combat this, radiation hardening is a way of making the hardware resistant to this electronic corruption. Most chips that have been radiation hardened are similar to commercially available chips, though their design and components may be slightly different. Hardening is an intense and difficult process, so these chips are normally behind the cutting edge of commercially available chips by several months or years.

It is possible for radiation to leak into electronic hardware during space exploration.
It is possible for radiation to leak into electronic hardware during space exploration.

Electronic chips are needed in many radiation-intense environments, including outer space and power plants. The problem with this need is that radiation has a tendency to release charged particles into the environment. If just one particle gets inside a chip, hundreds or thousands of electrons can be jumbled, causing the chip to display inaccurate information or destroying the chip entirely. This makes radiation hardening essential if hardware is to be used in these environments without the charged particles affecting the hardware's usefulness.

Radiation hardening requires electronic chip manufacturers to create both physical and logical shields to protect the hardware. On the physical side, the chips are made with insulating materials and the components are often magneto-resistive. Shields also are made to keep the actual hardware from ever interacting with the radiation and charged particles. On the logical side, the chip is designed to constantly check and scan itself for errors or memory loss. These are both major problems in radioactive environments, so the chips set sweeping and scanning procedures very high on their priority list.

Aside from the design and logical shields placed on radiation-hardened chips, the chips themselves are similar to commercially available hardware that is not subjected to radiation hardening. These chips are based on current chips and then modified. Modification can take a long time, however, so most hardened chips are several months or years behind cutting-edge hardware.

To test whether radiation hardening is effective, developers will normally place the hardware in a radiation chamber and subject it to proton and neutron beams similar to what would be encountered in actual radioactive environments. This gives developers an idea of how effective the shielding methods are. At the same time, this testing does not entirely mimic real-life conditions, meaning that test results and real-life effectiveness may be drastically different.

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