Cosmic Radiation and the BSOD

Space is full of cosmic radiation. Computer chips that go into satellites and other space gear need special shielding to protect them from the single-event effects, or SEEs, of cosmic radiation, but here on Earth, chip designers haven’t had to worry about it too much because the atmosphere reflects most of it away.

According to an article in EDN, with the increased densities of modern computer chips, SEEs are becoming the dominant reliability-failure mechanism here on Earth.

Paul Dodd, another foremost expert on SEEs and acting manager for the radiation-effects department at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM), says that commercial designs are also more frequently encountering SEEs but that designers are commonly missing or misidentifying them as other failures. “It could be happening on everyone’s PC, but instead everyone curses Microsoft,” says Dodd. “Software bugs probably cause a lot of those blue-screen problems, but you can trace some of them back to radiation effects.” And designers cannot yet quantify the breadth of the problem because, as IC-design and EDA consultant Pallab Chatterjee points out, “It is something companies don’t brag about.”

As chip densities and clock speeds continue to increase, it seems chips will become more susceptible to SEEs. It will be interesting to see how this affects Moore’s Law.